This was the most popular post on the old version of my site. You can find it and many other posts on the archive site.
I was in my NerdBunker all weekend so I didn’t attend the West Coast Rapture Ram here in Oakland. We ended up not being raptured, and today we have two articles by Jen McCreight and Greta Christina about some clueless dudes at the event, including – apparently – one on the stage.
This is a problem that’s come up again and again in the skeptic/atheist “community”, and the arguments always seem to boil down to dudes so high on Axe body spray fumes that they can’t comprehend the words of anyone with a vagina. I’m a penis-owning, cisgendered, biologically male straight person. Maybe my points can cut through the fog of privilege and latent misogyny so many straight men seem to be burdened with?
First lets stipulate two things which I think all straight men in these communities can agree. (I hate to be hetero-normative, but the simple fact is that this seems to be a problem for straight men.)
- Women are nice to look at. They’re quite often pretty, they have an appealing shape, and our sexuality drives us to want to copulate with them.
- Women who are intelligent and/or who agree with our world view are even nicer to look at. I don’t know a single person in our communities who doesn’t say they are more attracted to other members of our community than they are to people with different views on science, rationalism, and religion.
Still with me? Good. Now there are some things I want to point out that some of my fellow guys seem to be missing.
- We live in a subjective world. How we perceive our actions and the intent behind them is not always how they are seen by others.
- Straight men are a privileged group. Seriously. Stop bullshiting yourself and read about male privilege and do some soul searching if you don’t already realize this.
- Unprivileged groups experience a different, more hostile world than we do. I knew this intellectually, but I really grasped it when I spent a day where I was the only straight man (and one of only 3 men) at an event. It’s hard to do that. Many of you are science fiction fans – use your imagination on this one.
- Women are adult human people, just like you and me. I hate that I have to include this, but based on the comments I see on skeptic blogs every time the issue of sexism is raised, there are a lot of seriously fucked up dudes among us who genuinely seem to feel that as a rule women are immature, less reasonable, or more emotional than men. If you are one of these people stop reading and go buy a sex robot. Everyone will be happier.
Okay, now here are some practical tips and things to keep in mind so that you can make women feel less skeeved out, insulted, or threatened when in your company.
- It is not your job, nor is it your responsibility, or even your right to let women know when you think they are pretty. There is a time and a place for that sort of compliment. If you ever have any doubt at all, err on the side of keeping your mouth shut. Women deal with unwelcome sexual advances, often quite threatening ones, every day. This is the sort of thing it’s best to refrain from saying until you know someone well and they will understand your (pure, virtuous, and not at all sexual) intentions for what they really are.
- It’s rude and insulting to “compliment” women speakers or movement leaders about their appearance. Handsome male scientists and speakers are seldom, if ever, introduced or referred to as such. Instead their work and their contributions to science or our little pair of overlapping “movements” are the focus of talk aboutg them. When it is commonplace to talk about how useful Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delicious mocha skin and sensual gaze are for science communication, or how PZ Myers is helping to bring bear-fanciers to atheism, then maybe we can re-evaluate this point.
- It doesn’t make you less skeptical to revise your beliefs. Revising your beliefs in the face of evidence is surely the most skeptical thing we can do. It’s hard and it’s embarrassing to admit when you’re wrong, but it’s important to revise your position in the face of new evidence. I know that in a lot of this we’re talking about how our words and actions make people feel, and that can be hard to quantify with charts and numbers. The majority of women I know and read on the topic of sexism in the skeptic and atheist world agree that there is a problem. They are the women in these communities, therefore they are the experts and have done the “research” on what it’s like to be female and rational/godless world. Disagreeing with them because you, personally, haven’t “seen” it is a lot like claiming evolution is a hoax because we don’t all have pet crocoducks. We accept the work of experts even though we’re not all evolutionary biologists ourselves. We also don’t go around quizzing everyone who has studied biology until we find a ringer who will make us feel special. Just because one or two women tell you that you’re in the right doesn’t mean you didn’t offend some, or most, of the women present.
Just in case you’re a dude who has been put off because I seem to be too strident and hectoring, I’d like to share a bit about my own background. I was raised in the Mormon church. Amongst many fucked up things about Mormonism is the disgusting and overt misogyny in the church. I revised my previously held beliefs about men and women along with my beliefs about a deity. If I can do that, using reason, compassion, and humility, I have faith in my fellow men that most of you can too.