Sexism in Skepticism, or just Sex in Skepticism?

Having myself been accused of being as big a sexist bastard as anyone inside the skeptic movement (a good summary is here as well my response to it [which to find, you have to scroll down pretty far, just search for the word cosmonaut]), I feel I might as well chip in with my thoughts about sexism in the skeptical movement. It’s reared its ugly head again in the blog headlines over the past week or so.

I see no very little reason to expect sexism, racism, foodism, or any other -ism you can come up with to be any more or less represented in the skeptical community than in the population at large. Any community is made up of real people, and real people have just about every quality imaginable. Girls get hit on in elevators at every conference in every industry. That’s life as a human being. People also get robbed and burglarized at skeptic conferences. Expect everyone who attends a skeptic conference to be some perfect human being, or even better than average, and you will be disappointed. Maybe we’re less likely to wear Power Balance bracelets than the average Joe — since that’s on-topic for why we’re all gathered together — but we’re no more likely to be loving, humane, selfless, honest, or to wear corduroy than average.

After my wife and I attended our first two TAM conferences, we almost considered never coming back. The reason is that we both received an unusual number of unwanted sexual advances — interestingly, they were all from women (some of whom have personally been quite vocal in criticizing me for what they perceive as sexism pervading skepticism, but we’ll save hypocrisy for a different discussion for a different day).

I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I’ve definitely considered whether sexism is more prevalent in skepticism than should be expected. I don’t think it is. I think what we’ve got here is a large number of atheists and freethinkers. They show up in Vegas, figure “Hey, here’s a thousand other freethinkers and atheists, with no religious inhibitions; that means free sex for all!!” And, consequently, they throw unwanted propositions at my wife and I left and right.

We’re fairly mundane folks. We take our kids to soccer, we love family trips, we have breakfast for dinner on Friday evenings. We’re every bit as unlikely as Rebecca Watson, or most any other reasonably normal person, to accept a random sex proposition from a stranger in the middle of the night. So please, don’t expect us to gleefully accept your invitation.

I also remember a tremendous feeling of freedom and fresh air at our first TAMs (and at every TAM). You’re surrounded by people who have gathered for a shared purpose. You don’t have to watch what you say about alternative medicine or religion or sham business models. I felt like a dove being released, and if I had been single again I probably would have been right there with all the other single/available men and women running around expecting everyone to want to have sex with me.

I attribute this aspect of skeptic conferences to a shared lack of religious inhibitions and a glorious feeling of freedom. Those are both great things. In no way do I hold anything against our propositioners (if that’s a word) whom we turned down, with the exception of one or two who don’t seem to understand what “No thank you” means. I hope that everyone who wants to get lucky this year has success. Just please, have some class about it, understand the word no, and keep in mind that TAM attendees are real people.

I’m not always right and I’m certainly not perfect. I’m a real person too.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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10 Responses to Sexism in Skepticism, or just Sex in Skepticism?

  1. quarksparrow says:

    But … WRT the Rebecca Watson issue, at least … it’s not the propositioning that was the issue.

    It’s 4am, alone, in an elevator, with a complete stranger, who then propositions you. In response to which Rebecca decided to pipe up and make it known that, yes, that sort of thing makes some women feel uncomfortable or threatened, so if you care about not making women uncomfortable or threatened, then don’t do it.

    I don’t think she ever made the argument that propositioning a stranger for sex was wrong.

  2. cannikin says:

    Ha! You just tripled attendance at TAM. Wait a minute…are you a shill for Big Skeptic Conferences now??

  3. semiote says:

    It’s worth pointing out that there might be good reason to be suspicious of one’s own hunches about sexism in one’s own field. I say this because I think many male academic philosophers would probably guess that sexism is less of a problem in academic philosophy than elsewhere (at least, I thought that). But right now, there’s a vigorous discipline-spanning public debate about this issue, one which is yielding some squirm-inducing discoveries for me.

    I wonder: have you asked women in the skeptic communities you run in about the issue? If so, have you received any interesting feedback?

  4. Matthew Myers says:

    I think you were lambasted over the misinterpretation of an image. After reading through the SkepChick post and many of its comments, it was clear that they viewed it an an image of a “naked, servile woman” instead of the intended “sky-clad, new-ager calling forth mystical energy.” The new age movement contains heavy elements of druidism, witchcraft, paganism, and Wiccanism. The image, to me, seemed pretty well representative of the extreme kind of neo-paganism prevalent in the modern New Age mythos.

    And the rest of the comments complained that you were “smug, dismissive, and unwilling to respond to criticism,” which is odd, because this post addresses that very criticism. So, maybe they just don’t like you over at the SkepChick site? At least their fan base doesn’t like you “on the stage representing skepticism.”

  5. Julie says:

    Brian, your last paragraph held the most useful soundbite: “have some class about it.” Good general advice.

    I also agree with quarksparrow, when pointing out that your post does not discuss Watson’s points directly. Watson wasn’t simply propositioned, she was propositioned after the propositioner spent a good deal of time listening to her speak about not being objectified, and still chose to ignore her literal words. You mentioned during your TAM experiences, as exceptions,”one or two [people] who don’t seem to understand what ‘No thank you’ means.” Try flipping that lifetime ratio of classy-to-nonclassy around, and you’d be closer to my personal experience. My experience is not more valid than yours; it is what it is. But my experience is what leads me to worry so much about the treatment of Watson.

    What I am most curious to know, is your position on this facet: With no apparent provocation, a movement leader, Richard Dawkins, has piled on to the criticism of Watson, trying to shame her for speaking up – and speaking quite mildly, at that – about a legitimate concern. (Phil Plait has done a good job of spelling this out on his Bad Astronomy blog. See also, A Letter to Professor Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault.) What is your position on the blowback that Watson is now experiencing? Everything from the commenters claiming that she was never ‘really’ propositioned, to the young women and others parsing her ‘tone,’ to Dawkins simultaneously demeaning her experience and attempting to hijack the conversation (over to religon, of course).

    Hint: I’m hoping for something a little stronger than, “Girls get hit on in elevators at every conference in every industry. That’s life as a human being.”

    • Well, you’re probably not going to get a stronger response from me. I have not felt inspired to follow this “incident” so I really can’t form or express an opinion. My time is spent working on Skeptoid episodes. I’m glad that Rebecca and Dawkins both have sufficient free time to call each other privileged caucasians, and that so many other people have sufficient free time to obsess over it.

      • Julie says:

        I suppose since you have a history of bad blood with the Skepchicks, it was too much for me to hope that my concerns as a feminist in the community would get explicit support here. (For the record, Amy’s post contained factually incorrect information used to launch an unjustifiable personal attack on you. That album art does turn me off, though. Everybody’s a critic.) But I’m not sorry that I tried to communicate that being occasionally hit on is a rather distant cousin to being a target for life.

        Obviously, I feel that having movement leadership tell women to effectively ‘shut up and take it’ is a damaging thing. At least you’re not doing that here. A dulled silver lining, compared to the big goal of safe communities, but better than nothing.

        P.S. Wait, was that a shot about ‘obsessing’… from a person who was motivated enough to wade in with a blog entry? :) Keep the Skeptoids coming!

  6. Darren says:

    Is TAM even worth going to? Do you every go to it anymore and would you, as a guest?

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