This morning I read Rebecca Watson’s highly relatable and, going by the comments, predictably tendentious article about her experience of sexism in the skeptical/atheist community and the threats and hate mail she received for questioning this sexism publicly.
It was cool, I didn’t know Richard Dawkins was quite that much of an a- hole and I didn’t even know that a skeptical community existed, so that was interesting. I agreed with Rebecca Watson, for the most part, and sympathized with her pervading disbelief that a community she so admired and identified with could, in this sense at least, betray her. Reality checks are a bitch.
But what really bummed me out was the comments (because of course! it’s the internet!). Rebecca Watson was approached at 4 in the AM in an elevator by a strange man who had been attending a talk she’d given at a skeptical conference, about why dudes shouldn’t sexualize women at skeptical conferences. He told her he’d enjoyed her speech and asked her to come back to his hotel room for coffee. In her article, she notes that he asked this even though the hotel bar served coffee. She declined, they went their separate ways.
Then she made a video about the incident, telling other dudes that hey, that was kind of a not great thing to do, being massively inappropriate in context and everything, so maybe don’t do it? At which point the entire internet jumped down her throat and proceeded to threaten her with death and violent rape on almost every social media portal she used. And in the comments to the article I’ve linked to (which she wrote in response to all the hullaballoo and the scary violent threats and everything) all I could see was an honest bafflement at the fact that she could be anything but flattered or at the very least tolerant of Elevator Guy, who’d done nothing wrong.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Elevator Guy is a nasty rapist. I don’t even think Rebecca Watson thinks that. But he was inappropriate, and it was legitimately alarming and that, I think, is what she was trying to say.
I’m an Indian woman. Some parts of my country are certainly worse off in terms of women’s rights and autonomy than others, but I live in a metropolis where I am surrounded by men who call themselves progressive after the American and/or Western fashion, so I can’t think my experience can be very different from Rebecca Watson’s. Almost every time I leave my house, I am groped, hooted at, grabbed, or stared at (and this staring is the belligerent kind; which prickles and snags under your skin even before you’ve raised your head to identify its origins). This began in earnest when I hit puberty, but even in the years before that there were men who would leer, simply because I presented as a female child. I didn’t recognize it, but my mother did, and she’d pull me away and do the glaring for me. When I was about twelve I began to see why she hunched over in some places and marched, straight- backed and confident, in others. I too learned how to glare effectively.
As I began to look more and more like a woman, so the volume of these attentions increased. Now, I know I can expect to be touched or leered at. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I strategize around it. If I take a train, I sit in the ladies compartment. If I take a taxi late at night, I pretend to be on the phone so the driver won’t think I’m alone. If I’m walking, sometimes I will step off the pavement and onto the road’s shoulder to avoid a group of men. I would consider myself safe. But this doesn’t always work. I am still occasionally horrified by the things that happen to me. A few months ago, a friend and I were stepping off a train and onto the platform, when a young man about our age tripped and bumped his hip against her elbow. This negligible instance of contact was apparently so overwhelming that he felt the need to follow us out of the station, pull out his penis and begin masturbating. Nobody passing by us batted an eye.
I realize, now, that I am safe because I make it so. It is my strategizing that affords me this veneer of safety: not any safeguards society has made available to me, or any inherent decency in the men around me. This is not to say that I think decent men are a myth. There are lots. Most of the men I know are decent. However, I do think that only very few men understand how precious preserving this gossamer safety is to women. This is what I understood from Ms. Watson’s comments on the elevator incident. I would be deeply afraid if, at 4 AM, in a confined space, a man asked me out. While in another context I may well agree, in that space I would certainly be afraid; it would rip apart all of my carefully constructed and jealously guarded safety nets. All Ms. Watson is asking (and I am inclined to agree with her) is that men understand this and allow for it. By all means, ask women out. But please don’t be creepy about it.
In conclusion, Schrodinger’s Rapist. Read it! It’s great.