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Take Back The Elevator

by Alison Smith

July 6, 2011

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Donate I so rarely get to say this, so I'm going to put it in bold:


Really " the only time in recent memory I can remember expressing this sentiment was when a guy I know was relaying exactly how mortifying it is to have a penis in junior high school. (Short answer: Very.)

But the up-side of the completely random fact that I have a vagina, in this particular case, is that I feel fine stating a dissenting opinion in regards to feminist views of sexism. We'll leave random erections on the sidelines for a while.

There has been an explosion in the skeptical blogosphere lately which was sparked by a video created by Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson. She spoke of an incident wherein she was approached and, seemingly, hit on by a guy in an elevator at a hotel housing the conference at which she was speaking. That's one complicated sentence, right?

When Watson originally told this anecdote, I was somewhat in agreement with her. Her issue seemed to be, “Hey man, I'm a professional, don't approach me this way " it ain't cool.” And I agreed that an elevator is not a good place to ask for a date (if, indeed, that's even what the guy was doing. He asked her back to his room for coffee, according to her, because she was interesting. Not like, “Hey, nice tits, let's go do nasty.”).

But upon further reflection, even that isn't a great reason to be irritated, in my view. I know that I've felt that way at conferences, but it's because of an emotional deflation that occurs when people seem to have ignored who I am in a professional capacity in their haste to remove my panties as quickly as possible.

But I can't REALLY be mad about that. Because I do eventually want someone to remove my panties, and at some point that topic has to come up in conversation. Unless, in some kind of romance movie special effect moment, our clothes magically fly off and a well-timed earthquake throws our bodies together. I can be pissed off at the method or the location or the person, but that is far more easily put down to social awkwardness on the part of the guy or disinterest on my part than some secret desire he has to subjugate me.

Now, I'm going to make a couple leaps of logic in this article, and I hope to point them out as they happen because so much of the dramastorm around this issue seems to stem from them.

Leap Number One: The guy wanted to have sex.

We don't know that. We can't know that unless he raises his head and tells us so, and if I was that guy, I'd already be changing my name and moving to a third world country.

People are saying that this guy should've known that the elevator was a bad place to hit on a woman, because she is trapped and so on, and he might've been a rapist, and even if he wasn't a rapist, he should've known that hitting on a woman in an elevator might make him LOOK like a rapist, and shame on that guy for being so insensitive to the plight of women!

Okay " I get your point. I really do. Elevators can be isolated places, and no one is making the argument that they're not. No one is looking at this guy's actions and saying, “Damn, what a smooth motherfucker.”

However, this was not an elevator in a parking garage in Detroit at 4am, so for God's sake, stop acting like the story might as well have occurred on the moon.

It was in a hotel. In Dublin. You can say he might've had a gun, or might've had a knife, or might've been a black belt in karate, or might've been Chuck Norris in an extremely clever disguise, but the fact is that if any one of those was the case, you'd be totally screwed from the moment you stepped into that elevator anyway. What the guy said at that moment doesn't enter into it.

And we've reached Leap of Logic Number Two: The concern was rape or physical harm.

In her original video, Watson doesn't actually say anything about either. What she said was that it bothers her when men sexualize her in that manner " again, a statement I can get behind until I really start thinking about it and come to realize that, you know, sometimes I do want to be sexualized, and my issue is more with who is doing it than that it's happening. And sometimes the setting. Again, not a smooth motherfucker.

What bothers me is that people think this is a feminist issue when, really, it's a human issue. Respect boundaries. Think ahead. Consider what other people are thinking at the time. I'm not going to go around saying that there should be a special rule about approaching women when the fact is that we could probably all do with a little tact.

In fact, consider the opposite. Let's say that Phil Plait is on an elevator with a woman who has been listening to him talk for a while in a bar. He's tired; he's headed up to bed. The woman asks him to come to her room. Now, if he says 'no,' he's going to have to sit out the rest of this bizarre elevator ride in total silence knowing he rejected someone who may or may not be about to cry or bean him with her purse. What Watson said was that it made her uncomfortable. And if this situation was Plait instead of Watson, dammit, he'd feel uncomfortable too. Claiming that this is just a problem for females is, sorry, just a little bit sexist.

Which is why I think the rape issue was so gladly pounced upon as an excuse for blowing this so far out of proportion that it's gone beyond caricature. Again " the original issue; the original problem was not rape. It was discomfort. It was lack of tact. Please, keep saying that to yourself.

Now, at this point in the discussion, Richard Dawkins made a very unfortunate comment in a blog post at Pharyngula which was about this whole mess. It was an over-the-top comparison of the supposed plight of Watson to the actual subjugation of Muslim women. It could be summarized, basically, as “QUITCHERBITCHIN (and, as an aside, quit flying it under the banner of sexism).” Honestly, I think he should've just said that, because the backlash would've been relatively minor. Instead, though, he made a big show of the specific comparisons and how they rendered Watson's issue meaningless. Unfortunately, the same comparison could, if you tilt your head and squint real hard, be said to make the plight of all rape victims meaningless. Obviously, that's not what he meant, and Dawkins attempted to clarify, and thus dug himself deeper into the dramafest that is Elevatorgate.

Dawkins' point, I believe, was about privilege. Many feminists say that wealthy white men don't understand the concerns of women because men have been born into a privileged class. I believe that Dawkins was attempting to point out the irony of privilege " how it's so easy for someone that has it to not recognize that they do. And, additionally, his point was that absolutely nothing actually happened.

“But it could have!” you cry.

“BUT IT DIDN'T,” I say, and then again point out that this is a tact issue and someone might want to start a mailing list for Miss Manners, but there's no reason to bring vaginas into it.

Today, Skepchick posted another article directed at Dawkins. It's a series of letters written by Skepchick readers, calling out Dawkins for his insensitivity toward The Plight Of Women. Again " I agree that he made an unfortunate comparison, but really, the things being said about him are beyond ludicrous. Funnily enough, though, I wrote to Dawkins myself only yesterday.

Within my e-mail to him, I said that I believe Watson was intellectually dishonest in her original article about him. And this is why:

Watson, within her original article, defended her position by saying that she had only said that it made her uncomfortable that the guy hit on her in the elevator " that she didn't call for an end to all sex, or all overtures, or anything of that nature. Which is fine " I agree as stated above.

However, then she said that the last time she saw Dawkins, she was on a panel speaking about how she had received rape threats in the past. She then posted a screencap of one of the rape threats.

This made it seem like the Dawkins issue had something to do with rape when it didn't. She might as well have posted “The last time I saw him was at Burger King,” and then inserted an image of Dawkins wearing a cardboard crown, eating a Whopper.

In other words, she loaded the gun and pulled the slide, and you, her readership, pulled the trigger on her behalf.

And now there's all this.

As I said " at this moment in time, I am very happy to be a woman, because I know many men who want to say these things and feel like they're not allowed to do so. However, I do also go forward with a bit of fear. Traditionally, what happens to women like me is we get labeled “part of the problem” (awesome term, right there), and the personal attacks fling around the room like so much monkey poo at a zoo.

But maybe instead we can all take a deep breath and figure out what the problem really is, and how better to communicate in the future to prevent such madness. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

by Alison Smith

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