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Skeptic-schism Saturday: …and Skepchick has left the building.



Ok, this is certainly an interesting turn of events. Considering what I wrote almost precisely two years ago.

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick says:

“…the tragedy isn’t in the initial amount of harassment. It was (initially) only slightly more harassment than I had had to deal with in my every day life, after all, outside of this community. No, the tragedy is when the president of the organization that inspired me to join this community tells the world that women feel unsafe and unwelcome because of me.”

So, she has had enough. The original Skepchick has come full circle to see that  perhaps building your image on the idea that “Smart is Sexy” means some guys will extrapolate that to mean “I’m smart, so please have sex with me,” and that unless you have an organisation behind you that discourages that notion, they’re likely to act on that assumption. Funny, how when I made a similar complaint about how Skepchick was conducting itself, I got roundly rebuked for even making such a suggestion.

Rebecca was part of the reason I got interested in Skepticism, but when I pointed out that setting up an environment in which women were inherently sexualised within a group that attracts a lot of entitled males, might not be a great way to set up a safe space for women, I got shouted down and driven out of the forum (though not directly by Rebecca herself).

This has been a long time coming. Rebecca Watson’s attitude about the way women are treated and represented in skeptic and atheist events has been changing a lot recently. Especially since what has been dismissively referred to as “Elevatorgate” put her at the business end of some vicious, nasty, misogynistic male entitlement. I don’t think she brought this on herself, but  by reinforcing that entitlement in many ways through the activities of Skepchick she isn’t completely without blame. After all, for years the “Smart is Sexy” image has clashed with the women in skepticism who have felt that phrase alienates them. For many of us, smart doesn’t need to be sexy, it’s enough on its own. For a few more, we’re sick of our smartness being undermined by sexual or gendered comments. The response of Skepchick to these objections has been to say, “Well if you don’t like it, then go form your own organisation.” But now that all that campaigning to protect the privilege of sexiness has backfired, there seems to be a lot of backpedaling. Suddenly, they have found that empowerment that comes from sexualisation has depended on the approval of the men; once you say, “Hey, stop it,” or “Guys, don’t do this,” you are a “bitch” and a “cunt” and a “prick tease” and “deserve to be raped” for taking away their fun. Well knock me over with a feather.

But I know that, if I say that, I am missing the big picture, not to mention slut-shaming, victim-blaming and all that stuff that makes me go full-on FEMINIST HULK. I know the real problem isn’t what Skepchick does, or did. In some ways, I admit I missed this aspect of the big picture in my original objection to the Skepchick party’s theme. Yes, their attitude was problematic. But it’s the fact that this male entitlement exists in the first place that should get more attention. Yes, highlighting the contributions of ‘sexy’ women to the exclusion of women who don’t enjoy sexualising themselves contributed to that environment. But if I spend my time focusing on whether Skepchick’s new message about creating ‘safe spaces’ maybe seems a bit hypocritical in light of past actions, it seems to excuse the fact that if anyone suggests that maybe, some guys at these events are douchebags and that maybe, that’s why we can’t have nice things, they get verbally abused, bullied harrassed and treated like the enemy. Naming and shaming these particular douchebags is something that needs to happen so that we can manage this problem, without fear of being accused of ‘creating drama’ or dismissed as attention seeking (in spite of how, in the past, members of Skepchick have either engaged in it or condoned it). The point is that there are jerks out there that make it problematic by being jerks.

Yes, Skepchick could have noticed this earlier and could have been less concerned about promoting the brand and image and more inclusive to women.

Skepchick (the organisation) is a girl in a miniskirt, ordering shots at the bar and dancing to Ke$ha with her girlfriends. I may not like girls like that, but she is not the problem. The main problem is the sleazy guys who take the miniskirt as an invitation to come up behind her and grind on her butt without her consent. Sure, she’s not making it any better by looking at me in my t-shirt and jeans and saying, “Who let you in here looking like that? You’re reinforcing the stereotype of smart women!” But it is the sleazy dudes who make it not a safe space.

So I recognise some flaws in my initial argument against the Wild West Bordello. I still think it was a stupid idea, tacky and given how misogynistic some guys at these events are, maybe not in the best interest of all the women in attendance. But that was only part of the problem. The bigger problem was that the sexism and entitlement is there at all in the first place and everyone who jumped on me to tell me it wasn’t, are still doing that. And that just plain sucks ass.

  1. 02/06/2012 1:51 pm

    The original Skepchick has come full circle to see that perhaps building your image on the idea that “Smart is Sexy” means some guys will extrapolate that to mean “I’m smart, so please have sex with me,” and that unless you have an organisation behind you that discourages that notion, they’re likely to act on that assumption.

    That’s quite an assumption. As far as I know, Rebecca has never accepted that her approach (or recent about-face) has had anything to do with the kind of harassment that she’s experiencing.

    I don’t wish that on anyone, but I actually do think that she could have avoided most of it by listening to you, me, and several others over the past 4 years. Instead, she’s using it to draw even more attention to herself.

    While I agree that talking about the hypocrisy does not change the situation (which is why I have not written more than a few Facebook comments about it), neither will her new approach.

    Getting all huffy and storming off because some people do not give you the stage time to present YOUR version of the problem, make unsupported claims about the sources of the problem, and propose nothing about how it can be solved other than “drop everything you’re doing and listen to me” do nothing to change it, either.

    This is a cultural problem. It is not Rebecca’s personal crusade. She cannot fix it and it cannot be solved by martyring or pandering. The only way to change the culture is for everyone to stop being so freaking selfish and lazy – take the time and energy to think about how your behavior affects other people, whether it’s making sexual advances in inappropriate situations or encouraging them.

    Regarding the bordello theme, I think the outcome speaks for itself.

  2. Notaskepchick permalink
    02/06/2012 9:33 pm

    “The original Skepchick has come full circle ” incidentally, look up Sheila Gibson if you want the Original skepchick.

  3. shannonhumphreys permalink
    03/06/2012 12:44 am

    I’ve been learning, over the past few days, how much I’ve missed that’s been going on at the JREF over the past couple of years. A lot of it makes me very sad, and I’m constantly learning that people whose posts I really enjoyed have left never to return. I realise that the post of your’s that you linked to is almost 2 years old, but I’m very sorry to hear that you and Athon were treated the way you were. I actually met my husband on another forum, and he introduced me to the JREF, and our first meeting IRL was at TAM 4. So I always had a bit of a soft spot for the two of you. I’m rambling, I guess, but I’m happy to see that you’re still out there fighting the good fight!

  4. 03/06/2012 1:07 am

    You’ve made some very good points. I was involved in skepticism pre-Skepchick and at the beginning, that concept struck me as odd. I followed it and I tried to be supportive. But I couldn’t help but feel it was elitist (Weren’t all women skepchicks? No. Not unless you are part of the site.) and that my views and experience were not welcome by the new chicks on the block. I didn’t find it empowering and that was a shame. I was more and more confused about their choices and wondering WHAT IS THE PURPOSE HERE?

    Has anyone – the orgs, the bloggers, the outspoken people – actually considered what they are trying to accomplish. It sure doesn’t seem like we are all on the same bus going in the same direction. It’s very messed up.

    Regarding the sexism issue, I have not had serious problems with it (none that I feel I couldn’t handle) but I don’t discount the stories. (I also don’t discount the stories of deliberate nastiness taking place by women towards other women. Is that a form of sexism? I don’t know.) However, harassment and disrespect is a widespread issue. If changing the “cultural view” was the cause taken up by feminist skeptics, that would be GREAT and likely everyone would be whole-heartedly on board. But the way it was painted in distinct association with the skeptical conventions was misguided. It alienated not only the men but many women and derailed progress. I’ve hesitated to speak much about it because I’m frankly not sure what to say since it’s really really complicated. And, like you said, you get attacked.

    I’m still very willing to be supportive of those who do good but I don’t blindly defend them at all costs. We all need to take the constructive criticism to heart (and quit giving a stage to those who are extreme). I have set my own goals and will try to move forward.

  5. 03/06/2012 8:40 am

    I’ve seen a couple of people over the years chafe over that “smart is sexy” theme, and it always makes me feel as if two groups are talking past each other.

    I do not believe it was ever intended as “being smart will make you more sexually appealing,” although whether or not it actually does probably depends on who you ask.

    I think the intent was really more that intelligence a better gauge of someone’s worth than sexual appeal or bust size or stamina between the sheets or anything like that. Kind of a subtle stern glance to the people who look at a woman’s legs while she’s standing on a stage giving a scientific presentation. Maybe a better way to say it would be “smart is the NEW sexy.”

    But I’m not without my own biases. I was until recently married to a Skepchick and have been friends with all of them for several years. I’ve had a bit more access to their thought processes than most, which probably blinds me to how they look to the general public. I can only say they are not the women they are portrayed as (or how they may have accidentally portrayed themselves, depending on your POV). FWIW.

  6. 04/06/2012 1:07 am

    I’ll be honest, if attending TAM is the most dangerous situation these women put themselves in…and it has now become so dangerous they feel they can not attend…they must live in a nunnery. Yes there are jerks at TAM and there are jerks walking the street and jerks in bars. A lot of jerks in bars. I think of my friend Dave Doody who once mentioned staying late at a bar because a friend of his (female) was drunk and he wanted to make sure she was “safe”. People look out for each other. If anyone had said or done anything mean to a skepchick attending TAM or anyone, so many people (including myself and I have attended TAM with my 14 year old daughter…at the time 14 that is) would jump up and help. And South Point security is MEAN and TOUGH. They are made up of many veterans and many of them are WOMEN. Someone can get kicked out of South Point for being “annoying”. The rules and laws of the outside world do not count in South Point. Guest comfort is number one. I had someone kicked out from the Del Mar AND South Point. For being “annoying” and for me being worried what he MIGHT do (he was not a TAM registrant). To say TAM is “not safe” means what, you don’t go to bars, you don’t live in a real world . It has been compared to “workspace”…read the Bloggess new book. Her HR chapter is crazy! And while TAM has no HR, no one has reported even a fraction of what happens in the average workspace. (it’s a great book, get it and read now). Today, young women, and the followers of Skepchick are legion, will be “if it isn’t safe for Rebecca to attend it’s not safe for me”. A good lawyer could get a lawsuit here if this effects attendance in huge numbers. Sorry, it makes me so SAD, and paints young women skeptic leaders in a bad light. They are doing good work besides this. It’s not highlighted, because they can’t be heard over the noise of the DRAMA, “hey I have this great new website for helping parents educate their children about how to deal with religious classmates” (sorry, the DRAMA is taking up all the interwebs).

    • 22/06/2012 11:44 am

      Note that all the Skepchicks are appearing at CSIcon in October. Similar audience as TAM. I wondered why that event was “safe” and not TAM. But RW has made it clear that her problem was with the JREF. The argument is muddled and does not make sense (or has any critical thinking applied at all). I’ll be at both and will surely note my impressions of each.


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