Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Checking in

I’ve been too busy for skepticism for a few days but in the spirit of procrastination I want to say a few words about Rebecca Watson in a lift.

At the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Rebecca was socialising with a crowd of people until early in the morning.  She then announced that she was exhausted and was going to bed.  One of the crowd followed her into the lift and propositioned her for sex.

Some other stuff happened after that: she later spoke about the incident, was criticised for it and criticised the critics, for which she was criticised.  But I don’t want to get into all that.

People seem divided on the matter of whether Rebecca was right to be offended by the advance.  Some say it was an honest, if clumsy, request for sex and Rebecca is over-reacting.  Nothing wrong with asking for sex.  Others say it was predatory and unacceptable. 

I fall into the latter camp.   I can see nothing wrong with casual, no-strings sex, but I can see a problem with trying to solicit it out of the blue, especially in a situation where the target is likely to feel vulnerable (such as a lift in a foreign country at four in the morning) and especially when the target is female.  If you want casual sex, there are places you can go to find like-minded partners: people who – in that situation – don’t mind being objectified, since their intent is the same as yours.  They advertise that intent in one way or another.

People using lifts to get to their hotel rooms aren’t advertising availability.  Soliciting sex out of the blue objectifies those people in an unpleasant way. It suggests that the person doesn’t care about the other enough to make some kind of connection before making an advance. People on the whole don’t want to be objectified and so doing it is a form of aggression.  Doing it in a confined space with no means of escape is more so because it can create pressure to accept and be genuinely frightening.

Did Rebecca overreact?  I don’t think so.  I think she was reacting to the fact that a lot of men feel it’s OK to do this kind of thing and are blind to the reasons they shouldn’t.  Some of the reactions at places like this seem to prove her point.  Those of us who are privileged don’t often recognise it.  It’s hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes when we can’t even see the things that set us apart from other people. In this case, men have a lot less to be frightened of than women and a long history of being objectified and coerced into complying with male whim. 

I don’t think it’s acceptable to solicit sex in this way, not because of prudery or disdain for casual sex, but because of how it makes the target feel.  And it’s important for people to explain this because so many people don’t get it.

One of the people who doesn’t get it is Richard Dawkins, surprisingly. In comment #75 at the above link, he writes this:

Dear Muslima

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.


I don’t much care for the sarcasm, but I’m hardly one to troll for tone.  The real problem is that Richard is committing the fallacy of implying that because someone else’s plight is worse, we shouldn’t be concerned with less egregious difficulties.  He’s also buying into the euphemism of ‘coffee’ with faux naiveté.  He knows perfectly well that coffee isn’t what the man had in mind and pretends he doesn’t, which is rather dishonest.

Lots of people are shocked.  They can’t quite believe it’s really Richard.  I couldn’t, either.  He defends himself:

> Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are

> happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix

> things closer to home?

No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they'd have had good reason to complain.


There are several problems here.  First, Richard was quite obviously making that argument and it’s surprising that he’s now trying to wriggle out of it.  He plainly compared the two situations and the entire point of his satire was that one was worse than the other.  Muslim women certainly have it worse, a fact Rebecca is well aware of. But Rebecca’s point was about how male privilege blinds us to how women might feel in that sort of situation and Richard unwittingly provides an exemplar.

It’s really not the same thing as gum-chewing because while that implies a certain cluelessness, it doesn’t equate to objectification and it isn’t a potential threat.  A better example might be the two youths on a crowded train last Thursday who thought it was acceptable to play a movie on a laptop at full volume…. but it’s still not quite the same thing.

He’s since written:

Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.

I sarcastically compared Rebecca's plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the 'slightly bad thing' suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.

But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let's ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.

No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here's how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.

No, I obviously don't get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.


A few weird things here.  I don’t think anyone should apologise for being wrong or for offending people.  But the post shows that Richard still doesn’t get it.  The harm is not zero.  The harm to Rebecca was fairly minimal, I’d guess, but the harm in this attitude being perpetuated generation after generation is significant.  The harm of objectifying people – especially women – speaks for itself.  The harm of feeling coerced or pressured because of the background and environment should speak for itself also.  The ‘escape’ Richard mentions isn’t from the lift, but from the situation.  But the point is that nobody should have to worry about how to escape from a situation like that.  And Richard is being disingenuous in suggesting that the hotel corridors were “crowded” at 4am.

And another weird thing.  A lot of people have lost all respect for Richard over this.  I haven’t.  I think he’s wrong and I’ve explained why. I’m optimistic that he’ll understand eventually and have his consciousness raised another notch.

What is it with people that they insist high profile people agree with them on everything?  I’ll be disappointed if Richard doesn’t change his mind on this issue, but it won’t stop be being a fan of his other work.

I wanted to write something about reactions to the erosion of privilege, but this post is already horribly long.  Next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment