No weekend web readin’ post this weekend, I think, because the majority of my web reading lately has been all about sexual harassment at skeptical/atheist conferences. I’ve been to a total of one such conference, but would be up for attending more, especially The Amazing Meeting (TAM), which is produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and takes place in Las Vegas every July. That remains the case in light of the current shit storm going on. What shit storm, you ask? Well, I’ll do my best to provide an executive summary.
See, sexism in the skepticism/atheism movement (I’m going to just pretend they’re the same for now, even though I know all of the problems with that) has been a hot topic for quite a while now, especially since elevatorgate. Then in mid-May of this year there was the Women in Secularism conference, which sparked a discussion on women being under-represented, harassed, and generally treated poorly at other conferences devoted to secularism, and that has been an ongoing topic in a lot of places, including the blogs of several people at Freethought Blogs (FtB). I’ve been reading these posts and the conversations in the comments that result from them, which is how I learned that Rebecca Watson (of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and founder of Skepchick) will not be going to TAM this year. Why is that? After all, Skepchick has established a fund to provide grants for women to attend TAM, officiated currently by Amy “Surly Amy” Davis Roth.
Well, Watson explains, it’s because she thinks JREF’s president, DJ Grothe, has said that she is the reason why women are being dissuaded from attending TAM. Or at least, a reason. Here’s what Grothe said:
Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on [sic] reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
Here’s some relevant context:
1. Watson has endured a hard-to-imagine-if-you-haven’t-watched-it deluge of attacks since she described an unwelcome and slightly frightening come-on she received during a conference in a video she posted in June of last year. This stream of attacks was, I’m sure, aided by a sneering dismissal from Richard Dawkins that I thought was fake at first, and felt like a bizarre betrayal of the humanistic stance that people who decry religion in the name of morality should be obliged to take.
2. Grothe has been active in discussions on FtB regarding this whole matter. When asked to be more specific about examples of “prominent and well-meaning skeptics” contributing to an unsafe climate by using misinformation, Grothe threw out several examples. He began with a comment Watson made to USA Today last year:
Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”
If we tell people that our events or our movements are not safe for women, some women are bound to believe that. If I as a gay man had never attended a freethought or skeptic event and read in a national newspaper that that community wasn’t a safe space for gay people, I would certainly be reluctant to get involved.
3. Grothe is apparently mistaken about there having been no reports of harassment at TAM while he was president of JREF. Some say lying; I’m going to go with mistaken until it’s demonstrated otherwise. He says that JREF conducted a survey of TAM attendees last year to see how welcome they felt at the conference:
Of 800+ responses to this comprehensive survey, only two people reported feeling “unwelcome” at the event. Both of these respondents were men. One was a conservative who felt several speakers insulted his political beliefs. The other was a retiree who “hates” magic. 11 respondents to the survey did report a problem with an interaction with someone else that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe (this was a difference [sic] question on the survey). 3 of them were men who did not elaborate on the interaction and 3 were from women who did not elaborate on the interaction. Another was a woman who reported a speaker was rude to her when she asked for a photo. Another was a woman who was made fun of for not being an atheist. Another was a woman was ridiculed for being a vegetarian. Another was a woman who reported no specific incident but claimed her enjoyment of the event was negatively affected by the “drama surrounding elevator gate” and “having to hear everyone talk about it.” Finally, one person did report feeling uncomfortable around an attendee, fearing future possible sexual harassment, and while we are concerned about such concerns, there was no complaint of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on. Importantly, every one of these 11 respondents nonetheless reported feeling welcome at TAM. It is inaccurate to say that “women do not feel welcome” at these sorts of events, judging by the 40% women attendance last year at TAM and these survey results. Similarly, I think it is an irresponsible message to tell people that women are “unsafe” at these events.
4. There is a greater context of accusations against Grothe, including demands that he resign as president of JREF.
5. Amy of Skepchick continues to promote grants for women who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend TAM this year. She’s raising money by selling some of her ceramic jewelry, specially designed pendants for the cause.
6. There has been a lot of misinformation spread in the comments surrounding this issue. I have seen people claim that TAM never had a sexual harassment policy, when in fact it has had one for more than a year. I’ve seen people claiming that there is an organized effort by bloggers at FtB to remove women from skepticism conferences entirely. I’ve seen claims that they are forming a covert blacklist of speakers to pressure conference organizers into never inviting again, based on vague accusations of being “skeevy.” I’ve seen claim after claim after claim saying that Grothe was blaming people talking about harassment at conferences in general for the significant drop in women who have registered to attend TAM this year. That he’s blaming victims and trying to get them to shut up rather than authentically addressing a real problem.
Considering the fallout Rebecca Watson experienced from a really very benign and casual comment regarding a situation at a conference that made her uncomfortable, as well as several other unpleasant experiences she claims to have had at conferences, it’s entirely understandable why she would not choose to attend future such gatherings in the future. It is also understandable that other women who have experienced harassment at conferences would feel reluctant to report such, after witnessing the backlash against Watson that extended even to such a respected figurehead as Dawkins.
You know what’s also understandable? The fact that someone in DJ Grothe’s position would look at this outcry, and the fact that the female registration for TAM has dropped so significantly in the past year in spite of no official record that sexual harassment has occurred at the conference, let alone at a staggering rate, and conclude that a campaign of misinformation is responsible for at least some of that. In alleging such, he clarifies that he is talking about a “small number” of female skeptics who are “trying to correct real problems of sexism.”
Yes, declaring that the freethought movement in general is “not a safe space” for women is irresponsible. Vagueness might as well be misinformation, because a true statement that can just as easily be misinterpreted as a false one is of no help. This statement also suggests that the freethought movement is somehow less of a safe space, on the whole, than other movements or organizations, which is not true and definitely not a message anyone involved in it should want to send. I can entirely understand Watson concluding that the freethought movement is not a safe space for her, and it goes without saying that her grievance, and the attacks she has endured for her grievance, would not have happened were she not female. But that does not mean that any particular freethought conference isn’t a safe space for women.
I often disagree with PZ Myers, but in this case I found what he has to say very level-headed. From DJ, please fix this genuine problem:
It’s all well and good to have a piece of paper that you can wave around, saying that harassment will not be tolerated…but the next step is effective implementation, and that hasn’t occurred. Document everything: there should be a formal procedure for submitting a report in writing that gets filed away. There should also be an action taken — dismissing the offender from the conference, escorting someone out of the hall, giving a verbal warning, whatever — and that should be written down, too. Without all that, we get into these ugly situations where the victims experience these events, and then watch them get flushed down the memory hole — their concerns are simply dismissed. DJ needs to own up to the existence of a real problem, rather than closing his eyes to it and pretending it’s only a PR issue. He’s got to take TAM’s anti-harassment policy seriously, and give it some teeth and engage in some record-keeping. I do think he means well, but good intentions are not enough. There has to be some solid effort beyond drafting a list of dos and don’ts.