The Rebecca Watson Shite-Storm
The relevant video, watch it first, read the highlighted quote and then we can move forward:
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.
-Rebecca Watson of Skepchick
Rebecca Watson, if you haven't heard of her, is one of the very capable atheist, skeptical, writers at the wonderful Skepchick blog (click on title to go directly to their website also linked in the text). She has sort of come into her own as a voice for reason, and must certainly be considered a prime voice for the Gnus (New Atheists). In the passage above, and the video she describes being invited back to the room of another male attending the same conference for coffee. Her description of events, and her reaction to being asked out, has created something of a shit storm among the Gnu community. Perhaps that is a bit strong, but both Jen McCreight and PZ Myers both took Richard Dawkins to task for not being overly offended by the affair. Jen McCreight did this in harsher terms than I thought was warranted but, she, who crafted the Islamic Boobs protest thingy, is nothing if not over the top. PZ who seemed a little more reasonable on the matter, still didn't make much more sense. Just so you can adjudicate a bit on whether PZ and Jen are right to be so enormously offended let me post what Dawkins said:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake, grow up, or a least grow a thicker skin.
Some commentors accused Dawkins of suggesting that since there were worse atrocities abroad we shouldn't work on adjusting misogynistic attitudes here. Or worse that since there was worse treatment of women elsewhere, mysogynistic attitudes here, which were considerably less terrible in scope were somehow, okay. I think that is a rather pernicious species of bullshit, but Dawkins responded as follows.
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.
(Jen McCreight blathered on about the newish academic chestnut and watch-word of tolerance workshops everywhere: privilege. I will have to say, as disappointed as she is in Dawkins, I am equally, if not more, disappointed in her for her privilege talk. Not because there isn't a grain of truth in the concept, but because in general it is freighted with a massive amount of unexamined assumption. I am also deeply annoyed by her lecture to Dawkins about not every being called a name, not understanding the plight of women because he was a 70 year old white guy, never been a part of a minority etc. After all her talk about presumption this all feels a bit pot calling the kettle black. I mean consider the following from her Dawkins rant:
Words matter. You don't get that because you've never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don't have people constantly explaining that you're subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don't have people saying you shouldn't have rights. You don't have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don't live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.Seriously Jen how often are you told you are sub-human? I'm not sure, but I am sure Dawkins hears a lot of negativity, just read his hate mail. I suppose that can be written off though because he sports XY sex chromosomes. Okay I digress.)
You don't, because you have fucking privilege.
This has been the flavor of response to Rebecca's Elevator Advance. Some folks thinking it wasn't that big of a deal, some folks thinking it was a huge deal, representing what a horrible patriarchal country we live in. The debate has been both benign, and malignant. What is strange is that there is really a lot to agree with on both sides.
Rebecca is certainly right when she offers the advice to not ask a person out in an elevator at 4:00 in the morning. Even without her explaining that she dislikes being asked out at these things, accosting a person you have just met in an elevator or any enclosed space by themselves is probably a bad idea that will creep that someone out. So I agree that there are times and places that seem less creepy and threatening when asking someone out. People should totally be more sensitive to nuance. And if what she says is true, that she explained a lot that day that she didn't like being asked out at conventions then the guy was doubly stupid for thinking he would be the one to charm her out of her stance, or her feelings. I see no reason to doubt that she did say this so the guy should be firmly smacked on the back of the head by all his friends for being a dumb ass.
But I am not entirely certain that was all that she implied was wrong with the guy or the situation of his asking her out. She hated being "sexualized in that way." I confess I am honestly not sure what that can possibly mean. Jen McCreight's histrionics on the subject seem more likely to be in the same intellectual vein Watson is trying to tap. To which I have to ask, under what circumstances is it okay to ask a woman out? Is asking someone out "sexualizing them?" And is that really demeaning? Is it even avoidable? If one is asking someone out, there is some level of attraction (physical, mental whatever). In Watson's case the guy violated her request to not be asked out. This is hardly a crime -in fact is not a crime- even if it is extraordinarily presumptuous and done in a hamfisted stupid way. Is it really a moment to brandish the cannons of feminism? Is it a moment to claim that such things impact women negatively? As a whole? At the root of the Elevator Advance the situation is this: A guy asked a girl out who didn't want to be asked out. No one was raped. No one got tazed, not one hair on one head was harmed. That is the essence of the story. What we seem to be talking about is Rebecca's feelings about being asked back to a room for coffee.
I have been accosted in exactly the same way (in an enclosed space) on at least two occasions. I was approached by women in whom I had clearly expressed no romantic or even sexual interest. Both cornered me in isolated places and made their pitch as it were. I imagine I experienced the same level of creeped outness that Rebecca felt. Granted there wasn't any danger of my being raped by them (though I did have to physically move one of them out of my way and pry them off of me). Leaving aside the being jumped on part of my stories, I can't say that being asked out, being "sexualized" offended me that much.
If Rebecca was just putting it out there that it is really less than bright to accost a person with a potential sexual advance in an elevator while they are all by their lonesome, then I have no real issue here, and support her advice to future attendees at such conferences. But if it had something more to do with feminist conceptions of "sexualization" then I think she is probably off the mark. It seems that if you are at a conference of like minded individuals you are going to find people to whom you are immediately attracted for a host of reasons. As such, people are going to be asking other people out (sexualizing them I suppose) for the immediate gratification of a fun one night stand, in hope of some kind of long term partnerships, or just to see where things go. This seems unavoidable.
My question, should you chose to answer it, is why not make the matter about tact and not feminism? Should only women be allowed to ask men out as seems to be implied? Am I missing something?