Okay, so there’s a big fuss going on on the usual atheist blogs – Pharyngula, Daylight Atheism, Butterflies and Wheels, Skepchick, and some others — over a, well, spat seems to be the right word between Rebecca Watson, Stef McGraw, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers and a host of others. The issues are all clustered around an example where Rebecca Watson was hit on in an elevator late at night at the atheist conference in Dublin and worked it into one of her videos, which I didn’t watch because, well, I don’t usually watch videos. Sue me.
(And yes, I did have to strongly restrain myself from naming this post “Love in an Elevator …”. I hope that this show of sensitivity carries on through the rest of the post [grin]).
Anyway, there are two big issues here:
1) Watson’s comments on the incident and what it means.
2) Her responding to McGraw’s reply to that in a speech at a recent conference.
Let’s deal with the first one first:
The only easy transcript I have for it is from McGraw’s site, and so I’ll add on what McGraw left out. Essentially, Watson was detailing her experience where after being on a panel talking about I guess treatment of women on a discussion panel, things kept going at the bar until about 4 am, at which point Watson decided that she was exhausted and was going back to her room to sleep. And then:
“…so I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’ Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”
Again, the quote’s from McGraw.
So, let’s start with the incident itself. Yeah, I can understand why she’d be creeped out. It was a really awkardly timed come on and was in a situation that she could find scary. Her being uncomfortable is quite reasonable. But as it turns out she didn’t have reason to be scared; she declined politely, he accepted it politely (one must presume) and it was nothing more than a simple awkward approach.
So, then, is there anything worth commenting on in her statement? I think there may be, specifically, this part: “… right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”
First, what does “sexualize” mean? From meriam-webster.com: ” : to make sexual : endow with a sexual character or cast “.
Now, this is a bit vague. Any attempt to express attraction for someone or make any sexual proposition could be seen as endowing with a sexual character. I presume that even if it is the case that any proposition makes Watson uncomfortable — which I highly doubt — she wouldn’t take any approach as being problematic enough to comment on, or link to a panel discussion that — to my best knowledge — was about generalized misogynism at atheist conventions. So that’s probably not what she means.
So what did she mean? Well, likely, she was trying to make a link to treating her as only a sexual object, as opposed to a complete human being. Now, to start with, I’m going to say something that might well offend some people, but here goes: there are going to be times when I’m going to treat a woman as nothing more than a sexual object. There are going to be — and have been — times when I’m going to treat a woman as only an intellectual object, such as when we’re working on a project for a class or any sort of academic project. And, heck, there are times when I’m going to treat a woman as a food-fetching object, like when she’s the waitress at a restaurant.
However, note this: none of the times when I, personally, will treat a woman like nothing more than a sexual object are going to be when I ask her for coffee, whether to my hotel room or not, at 4 am or not. If I had been the poor guy in the elevator — and I wasn’t — I wouldn’t have been expecting anything like sex to happen, and would have been quite bemused if it did. Ultimately, if I’d said something like “Hey, babe, let’s f***”, okay, yeah. But inviting for coffee, to me, means “I find you interesting in more ways than just your body, and I want to see if we can make a Love Connection. So we’ll just bring out Chuck Woolery and see what happens.” To get up the nerve to approach, at least for me, implies that I find something about you more interesting than just your looks, and so at that point I’m clearly not just looking at you as a sexual object.
And that gets us to the real point: She has no idea if he “sexualized” her in that way. She’s assuming it from what he said. But that’s simply reading his intentions from his actions from her perspective, and is basically not attempting to understand him. If in any way she’s upset by his “sexualizing” her, she’s painting him unfairly based only on her own impressions of, one must presume, men in general, and that’s wrong. He asked you for coffee; he didn’t turn you into purely a sexual object. Or, at least, you don’t know he did.
And that’s the problem here. Watson is turning this incident into some kind of general comment about general society, without even bothering to make sure that this impression of hers is accurate. She may be right. She may be wrong. But she doesn’t have the evidence. And we have the strongest counter-evidence possible: by what seems to be her own admission, he took her rejection presumably with disappointment but also politely and without exerting undue pressure. That means that he does respect her as a person, and isn’t just treating her as a sexual object. Congratulations for implying that someone who sees you as a person doesn’t.
See, this is actually part of the problem here. You see my list above of treating a woman as only an X object? It’s not quite true. Many of the women that I treat as only sexual objects are, in fact, only attractive to me because of things I think about their personality. I note the personality traits of women I work with on projects. I treat the waitress as a person and am always polite, and occasionally even chat with them. It’s really hard — at least for me — to not treat people as people as opposed to just X, and that includes sexually. So if, for at least some of us, thinking of a woman sexually includes thinking of her as more than a sex object, whence comes sexualization in the sense of only treating her as a sexual object?
I think that this is one of the reasons McGraw was annoyed by it:
“Watson is upset that this man is sexualizing her just after she gave a talk relating to feminism, but my question is this: Since when are respecting women as equals and showing sexual interest mutually exclusive? Is it not possible to view to take interest in a woman AND see her as an intelligent person?”
So Watson needs to clarify that specific point, which leads us to the second point:
Watson quoted McGraw in her keynote speech:
This is the paragraph I ended up quoting:
My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said (and I’m assuming did say), “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep.”
She goes on to criticize it:
“But those are unimportant details in comparison to the first quoted sentence, which demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question. That’s what we shouldn’t be doing. No, we feminists are not outlawing sexuality.
I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?” “
So, she read the post, had problems with it, and instead of replying on the comments of the blog or in her own blog, decided to slip the criticism into the KEYNOTE SPEECH at the conference which was about the Religious Right’s War on Women, thus associating McGraw with that sort of sexism and misogyny, in a location where McGraw might — and it seems, did — feel uncomfortable defending herself since she didn’t want to take up the microphone to challenge Watson.
Yes, that’s out of line. First, she seems to be exaggerating the charges McGraw made. Second, she seems to be ignoring that there’s a difference of opinion on what this incident counts as. Third, she called out — by name — McGraw when Watson had the power and McGraw had none, as opposed to on blogs where everyone’s roughly equal. And, finally, she did it in a context that would associate McGraw with exceptionally strong misogyny when there’s no reason to think that McGraw is anti-feminist or misogynist at all.
Summary: Watson screwed up. She should apologize for saying what she said when she said it. They can hash out what each other mean on the blogosphere where hopefully they’ll both learn something. And people defending her on the basis of “You should always name names” are missing the point very, very badly.
Watson ends with this:
“For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?”
If you really respected her, you’d have been more careful in your insinuations and in the context your presented that criticism to ensure you avoiding making implications you didn’t want to, and you would have apologized once that became clear. That, however, is not what you’re going.
And, finally, Richard Dawkins weighed in and ticked a lot of people off:
(I’ll skip the first one where he just makes a comparison to more serious forms of sexism across the world, you can find links to both here: http://www.daylightatheism.org/2011/07/atheists-dont-be-that-guy.html )
” “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.”
So, I can actually defend and condemn Dawkins in the same post! How cool is that?
First, I think he has a point, the same point I’ve been making: this wasn’t actually a problem or even an example of sexism. The man asked, was politely rebuffed, accepted it politely, and that should have been the end of it. I agree with that line.
But where it gets a bit dicey is where he starts comparing it to Crackergate, mostly because he’s associating it in a way that implies that the discomfort Watson was feeling was just in her head, just like he thinks is the case for the Catholics. But it’s reasonable for her to feel discomfort there, because it was in some sense a bit of a threatening situation. His later defensive comment saying that you aren’t trapped on an elevator misses it as well since because of the hour getting off on a floor isn’t all that likely to help. The fact is that she was reasonable to feel uncomfortable, but that taking that beyond a “I was uncomfortable” isn’t warranted.
The one difference between the two is that, at best, the guy on the elevator wasn’t trying to make her uncomfortable. P.Z. was trying to offend Catholics. Thus, what P.Z. did was in fact unacceptably rude and what this guy did was, at worst, clueless.