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Wherin I Clarify
July 10, 2011 — 10:25 pm

With my previous post, I waded full-on into our ongoing gender war, though that really wasn’t my intention.

After a good bit of discussion with friends and loved ones about the issue, I feel that I should ‘walk back’ some of my comments, clarify others, and expound on the issue as a whole.

My concerns are not with the original incident (man in the elevator) or Ms. Watson’s initial reaction. It’s with her reaction to people questioning her over the incident and then the piling on from P.Z. Myers and Phil Pliat. This I’ve well documented in my previous post.

As I’ve said before, her concerns were with her feeling sexually objectified (which I’ll address downstream), rather than feeling like she was in any danger of being assaulted. The whole specter of rape only came up after P.Z. Myers jumped into the debate; and as far as I can tell, Watson has done nothing to correct that misconception.

Now, allow me to ‘walk back’ or clarify a few points.

Starting from the beginning: That Watson felt uncomfortable is not in question, nor is it really part of the debate. I believe her when she said the incident made her feel uncomfortable. I have no earthly reason not to. However, we are dealing with so many layers of conjecture and speculation here that it’s nearly impossible not to project your own feelings, prejudices, and biases into the discussion. Because of this, I am doing the best I can to look at this without any preconceptions.

Regardless of what Phil Pliat says, the problem was not because a man was in an elevator with a woman late at night. The problem people have is with the solicitation. Had the man never said a word to her, or looked at her during the ride, not a word would have been spoken about this.

Which is interesting to me. A rational person would recognize that a man and a woman alone in an elevator together does not heighten the risk of sexual assault by any degree of certainty. In fact, if we are to extrapolate out for population, it can be assumed that this very scenario occurs hundreds of thousands (if not millions of times) per day around the world and we don’t see internet blogs blowing up about it.

So, at what point does it turn into a “potential sexual assault” in people’s minds?

Where is the line? Is it when he speaks to her? Is it because it’s at 4:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 p.m.? Is it when he says he “finds her interesting?” Or is it only after he utters the words, “would you like to come back to my room for coffee?”

This is a serious question. From where I stand, it seems to me that if the guy had sexual assault on his mind, then the act of solicitation posed no more of a threat than him just being there.

This is where I take extreme issue with people like P.Z. Myers and especially Phil Pliat. That they are blind to the above is a cognitive failure. Do sexual assaults happen on elevators? Yup, of course. But, how statistically prevalent are they? Under what conditions do they occur? How often are the two parties known to each other? What other factors come into play? That these questions are not being asked or addressed by skeptics is distressing to me.

Cannot men and women alike agree that when Phil Pliat jumps right to “potential sexual assault” just because a man and a woman are alone in an elevator demeans the whole conversation? Do people not understand that this goes right to the heart of irrational bigotry? I don’t care what Pliat’s motivations are, here. I care about what he said. If you are going to spend most of your professional career debunking things like astrology, religion, psuedo-science, and general quackery under the umbrella of skepticism, don’t be surprised when people call you on it when you fall for the very same cognitive biases that you attack on a regular basis.

This is why, under the conditions that Watson herself described, I see no reason to fall into the “Oh my God, she could have been raped!” line of thinking.

I also see no reason why one cannot state, in a perfectly civilized tone of voice, that though the fear of being raped on an elevator may be valid for some (given their past histories, experiences, etc.), it is an irrational fear for most people to hold onto.

Given that, I also see no reason why men (or anyone else for that matter) should feel obligated to change their behavior to accommodate those with irrational fears, regardless of the subject matter.

Of course, more empathy is needed from everyone. Never intentionally make someone else uncomfortable, if you can avoid it. To do otherwise is impolite and boorish. But there is no need to kowtow to irrationality as you go about your everyday business.

Onto the matter of the solicitation. This is a bit trickier to tackle, as there are several issues wrapped into one, here. I can easily understand why such a solicitation would creep many women out. However, I can just as easily understand why it would not. I’ve heard excellent arguments from women taking both sides.

To me, that means it’s all situational. Would I proposition a woman on an elevator at 4:00 a.m.? I honestly don’t know. Certainly not if all the right signals were not there. Certainly not out of the blue, like this gentleman apparently did. But what if she were looking at me suggestively? What if our chit-chat was sexually charged in some way? What if we just got done talking for three hours in a group and I felt there was a strong mutual attraction between us? What if, what if, what if.

So, all this talk of “never solicit a woman in an elevator at 4:00 a.m.” may be too ridged. I make this point because there have been dozens of follow-on posts instructing men on “how not to pick up women”, etc. This may very well be good advice to follow, but how do we allow for outliers?

The questions that aren’t being answered or addressed are:

  • How many times has this tactic worked on women?
  • Would we even hear about them if it did?
  • If there is a significant population of women who do not mind being propositioned in such a way under the right circumstances, why should men not attempt such a proposition when they feel they have a chance?
  • How many women proposition men in this fashion?
  • How many men have said it’s creepy when women do this?

These nuances are exactly what inflames the “gender war” and sends people swirling into orbit with righteous indignation. You have people of both sexes claiming everything from “misogyny” to “potential sexual assault” to “creepy behavior.” Then again, you have people of both sexes insisting that absolutely nothing bad happened in that elevator. That this is a non-issue, to be forgotten and derided.

So, what are we as skeptics to do in this situation?

We need to ask difficult questions and rely on the facts. If something is irrational, we need to point it out. We ask people to show their work. We do not accept emotional overreaction or unfounded conjecture to cloud our judgment. This is an important point as the “skeptic movement” has taken great pains to be a “big tent” organization, inviting people in from differing political ideologies, social strata, genders, race, etc. That there will be conflict when such diversity is present is a given. Feminists and men’s rights activists cannot expect to be immune to people questioning their beliefs any less than skeptics question religiosity, psuedo-science, or quackery. In a skeptical organization, everything is up for debate. Feelings and beliefs do not matter as much as reason and facts.

As stated above, I do not hold any truck with the “potential sexual assault” line of thinking, but I do have sympathies for Watson’s feelings of being objectified, to a point. From what I can tell, this is what Watson’s main complaint is. If so, it’s rather more difficult to pin down any solution.

We can take Watson’s word for it that she gets a great deal of wanted and unwanted attention from men. Obviously, her gender and her looks have a great deal to do with this. But so does the field of interest she’s in and the way she comports herself therein.

If I may clarify, Watson can’t help being a woman anymore than I can help being a man. She can’t help being an attractive woman, anymore than I can help being an average looking man. That people are attracted or disinterested in us for those reasons and those reasons alone are beyond our control. Just because she is a woman means she will attract a good deal of men. Just because she is blessed with good looks means that she will attract even more men (and women). This is basic biology and to deny it would deny the very precepts of biological and social sciences.

So, that’s not the issue, here. The issue is how men (and women) approach her, under what circumstances, under what motivations, etc. I can very well accept the fact that because of her gender and looks, she receives more unwanted attention from men (and women) than an average-looking man would. If this is bothersome, I honestly do not know how to fix it. It depends on the circumstances.

For example, after I wrote my first blog post, my girlfriend and several very close female friends stated to me that I just didn’t understand what it was like to be leered at, ogled over, and approached in an unwanted sexual manner on a near-daily basis for no other reason than being a woman.

They were absolutely correct. I do not know. I have no idea what it’s like, nor do I have any frame of reference on how that would make me feel.

I will not, however, concede the point that this is due to “male privilege.” Just as I would not claim “female privilege” for women who do not understand or have any frame of reference for how men feel in certain situations. This is a conversation-stopper and serves no purpose other than to position yourself as morally superior.

I can only think of one conceivable solution to the problem, and I am open to suggestions.

Anyone at the receiving end of or a witness to such obviously bad social behavior (man or woman), should not hesitate to shame the person/people engaging in such behavior. Do not stand by and allow yourself or other people to be bullied. People (men and women) get away with vile social behavior because people around them allow them to get away with it. I fully understand that a woman might be too intimidated to say something, but this isn’t because of gender. Plenty of men are also afraid to speak up as well. What this says about humanity, I’m not sure. I do recognize that these are social pressures, however. That we turn a blind eye to vile social behavior says more about us as people or a culture than it does about us as men or women.

Watson’s field of interest and how she comports herself are much more under her sphere of control, however. Though many women are beginning to join such organizations, it is still recognizably male dominated. That many more women are joining, however, speaks volumes for the adaptability of such organizations.

How she comports herself is something completely under her control, and it’s a point that is most likely to be misunderstood and attacked. It is not unreasonable to state that if you play the “sexy skeptic” role to your advantage by way of pin-up calendars, sexual innuendo, sexually charged conversations, sexually charged blog posts, semi-naked pictures, whatever, you cannot expect some men (or women) not to approach you as a sexual object. As I stated before, it is not liberating for a woman to talk about sex, but objectifying for a man to talk to a woman about sex. That’s an obvious double standard.

It’s also not unreasonable to point out that double standard when you make the claim of objectification, whether right or wrong.

This is where I’ll be attacked for saying “she was asking for it.” Of course, this is not the case. I’ve been very clear. Every man and woman has the right to express their sexuality without fear of harm or the need to apologize for it. What every man and woman does not have the right of, however, is to not accept the consequences for their actions. If that means that more people view you as a sexual object, then that’s what that means. It does not give a pass to anyone to engage in bad social behavior (leering, ogling, foul language, a repeated unwanted sexual advance) without censure. It does not give anyone the right to initiate force against you (physical contact, herding, etc.) without the the law becoming involved.

A single, unwanted sexual advance does not necessarily equate to “objectification.” I think an argument can be made in this case, taking the entire evening into context, that it could be, but I’m still not sure why anyone should feel overly offended by it. Certainly not to the point of Watson’s actions after the event.

I’m going to deviate a bit from the skeptic point of view, here, and wade into some gender issues that I’ve been thinking about.

A good friend of mine brought this point up when commenting on my original blog post:

Phil Pliat = pre-crime? Your reworking is brilliant by the way, because it underscores the essential challenge of equalization of society. We all approve of setting a disenfranchised group apart in order to provide some uplift and legislation to assure them that the dice cast of all lives are not twisted and turned unfairly by the powers that be. However, who really is willing to draw the line and say – ok, we’re done here. Even steven. I have yet to see that happen. No one who achieves a victory just goes home. I don’t believe it is a slippery slope – I believe it is more like gambling. When you are winning, you don’t leave the table.

First, let me say, I am not a men’s rights advocate anymore than I am a women’s rights advocate. As I have clearly laid out on this blog, I stand up for human rights. Nobody should get special treatment under the law, regardless of their gender, race or, creed.

Women certainly have been cruelly oppressed throughout history. It is my belief that the strides in equality that have been made have much more to do with democratization, industrialization, free trade, and our over-all shunning of religious dogma rather than the feminist movement. Indeed, it is only because of the liberalization of our society that feminism even exists. I believe this is empirically demonstrated by comparing western, First World societies to Third World dictatorships and fiefdoms (which was Dawkins’s whole point when he spoke up).

As we come ever closer to a parity between the sexes, the differences become more stark, and more trivial.

It is not unreasonable to point out that there have been some severe societal over-reactions in our attempt to achieve parity.

It is also not unreasonable to point out that men have serious negative issues relating to their gender, just as women do.

Men are overwhelmingly the victim of more assaults and murders than women, for example. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women. They are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia. Though there are more men on top of the IQ spectrum, there are more on the bottom end, as well.

Diseases like colon or prostate cancer are just as deadly and more prevalent than breast cancer, but they do not receive anywhere near the amount of attention.

Men are more likely to die on the job than women.

Men have shorter life-spans.

Men are more likely to suffer from PTSD.

If a man does not sign up for the draft when turns 18, for whatever reason, he is automatically shut out of all opportunities that would include federal or state funds (college) or any government job. Can women say the same? If this were really an issue for women (as I’ve been told it is) it would have certainly been fixed by now, as women make up at least 50% of the voting block.

Men will overwhelmingly lose custody of their children in a divorce case. Divorce laws around the country are so unfairly biased towards women that it borders on a civil rights issue.

I accept that you are leered at, ogled over, and sexually propositioned more than you care to be. Will women accept that I am also stared at, pointed at, or angrily talked about in a passive-aggressive way by women who see me holding my daughter’s hand out in public?

As a woman, can you imagine any scenario where you would be under immediate suspicion were you walking by yourself in a park where children were present? What if you were out taking pictures?

Do women understand that because of our socialization, men are expected to approach women when they are interested in them, thereby putting themselves in a position to accept all the rejection? Do women face the same social pressures? Must they face the same amount of rejection throughout their lives?

This is a very serious question, because I believe it goes right to the very core of this whole issue. Rebecca Watson is just a much a victim of how women act in the dating world as of how men treat her. If you can imagine a society where both genders take an equal amount of risk when it comes to rejection, I think you would find the incidences of men approaching you would drop somewhat.

Men and women each have their own problems because of their gender. This is where so many people fail when entering this discussion. Some men are every bit as dismissive of those problems as women are. However, feminists cannot expect to be taken seriously by many men until they are willing to at least concede that these problems exist.

Feminists also cannot expect to be taken seriously until they concede that many of the problems listed above (on both sides) are, for the most part, First World problems.

Finally, a point about Richard Dawkins’s statement in all of this. I’ve read hundreds of comments lambasting him for being an “asshole” and “insensitive” for making those comments.

First, not very many people in the atheist movement were very concerned when Dawkins was being an “asshole” or “insensitive” about religion. I don’t know how you can deride him when he attacks something else that he finds equally as irrational in the same manner.

Second, Dawkins repeatedly asked people to explain to him why what he said was wrong. He asked for clarification and intimated that if he were wrong, he would change his statement. Can the same be said about Phil Pliat, P.Z. Myers, or Rebecca Watson?

I wouldn’t think so, certainly not from her “rich, white, male, heterosexual” statements. How does this add to the discussion? How can Watson expect to be taken seriously from this point forward?

Lastly, I’ve run up against the “privileged white male” statement a number of times over the past few days. Please understand that when confronted with such inanity, I will be more than happy to repay you in the same coin by referring to you as a “spoiled brat.”

And, until further discussion arises, I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

— Justin M. StoddardComments (1)

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1 Comment
  1. I really like the clarity and completeness of your post. I’d like to discuss it with you, if you are not tired of the subject and you don’t find my approach creepy. (Yeah, I’m taking a shot at… humor.)

    I’m making a concerted effort to empathize with the people (mostly men) who disagree with me on this thread. I’m coming to understand that when many men aren’t getting what some women are saying on the topic, they aren’t feigning ignorance, they really don’t know.

    A few days ago I chatted with a female friend (45) and her husband about this specific internet debate. They have a close relationship and he’s a very empathetic person. When I mentioned the “sometimes we don’t like getting hit on issue”, he turned and asked her “Is this really a problem? How much does it happen?” She said “Happened yesterday at the grocery store.” A few minutes later, I asked her “So, it’s less scary being hit on in the grocery store in the daytime than in a hotel late at night when no one is around, right?” She said “Actually I was at the grocery store at 11pm. The guy behind me in the checkout line hit on me and then, as he was buying only one item, walked out a minute after her, following in her footsteps. She’s a petite woman, and I think she feeling a bit wary as she loaded her groceries and heard his footsteps come up behind her and then pass by. (Note, a lot of parking lot caution and alley and elevator caution is from fear of mugging, which some how dropped right out of the online fighting.)

    I want to state that I believe the feminist behavior request actually is “don’t hit on women in elevators if you are a stranger”. While some or many women may feel cornered when inside an elevator, I don’t think there’s an absolute rule for a pair of people who have been chatting that they can’t proposition each other. For me, a proposition from a person who I *do* know a is less startling and less unwelcome than one from a man I haven’t ever spoken with.

    I understand that many men would not feel threatened by a proposition from a woman in an elevator or off of it. Because my husband has a higher sex drive than I do, I get the idea that most men do not think too much sexual attention could ever be a problem. (I can hear a chorus of voices exclaiming “Now that’s a problem I’d like to have!) I’m sure I lack empathy about how unpleasant the problem of not enough sexual attention is. (I’m trying. And I’m not dismissing the idea that this IS a problem and it sucks). But I admit that if a male conference attendee had blogged about how crappy the conference was because a low percentage of the men there who wished to get laid had any success that weekend, yeah, my first reaction just might have been amusement and light mocking.)

    I didn’t really like the argument that I heard during the flame wars that being afraid of all strange men in elevators was misandrist. However, I did try to stop and consider that it might be true. It’s almost an empathy failure on my part. It is really hard for me to grasp what that would feel like to be assessed as a potential rapist. My experience in this area is far removed from a man’s experience. The analogy about fear of pedophiles at the park was a good “consciousness raiser” for me on this topic. (My husband, as a teacher, was trained to never talk to a student alone with the door closed because of the twin risks of abuse and allegations of abuse. This rule applied to teachers and students of both genders.)

    It’s great that you referenced Phil Plait. He’s the first person that I saw said “potential sexual assault” to describe the brief elevator journey. I really feel that with that phrase he poured gasoline on the fire and the flames became an inferno. When I first started reading the thread, I figured that Rebecca’s expression of “extremely awkward” meant what I would have felt. Thoughts like “What can I say? How’s he going to react?” Is he going to badger me or (instinctively) loom over me to scare me when I piss him off?” “Will he follow me down the hall to my room?”

    I’ll admit that I’m probably somewhat misandrist in assessing men in elevators who want to have sex with me when I don’t. I’m of average height for an American woman. My teenage son is my height right now, but is substantially stronger than me. I looked at the bell curve for men’s heights and 96% of men in this country are as tall as I am or taller. If I assure you that I’m not intimidated by the men who are shorter or frailer than I am, can I get off the hook on the misandry charge and just be a “sizist”? I’m not afraid of all men, just wary of strangers who want sex. This could just be a lack of social skills; I got married young and never got skillful at graciously rejecting men who really don’t want to be shot down. (Being thoughtful when exhausted is also difficult for me.) I identify with Rebecca’s feeling of awkwardness in the situation. He had some time in the bar to craft his pickup line. She had to improvise her response on the spot. Unless she’s hit on a great line that “works” all the time. (Some men will argue with “I’m married. And monogamous.” which are my “go to” phrases for the situation. And I’d start with just “Sorry, I’m married.” But I’d be slightly aggro’d that the dude didn’t ask me whether I was married back in the bar and save us both a bad elevator ride situation.)

    The bottom line may be that a lot of people go to conferences who don’t usually go to bars.

    Comment by Elizabeth Hill — July 16, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

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