I know, I know. We’re all sick to death of the story of Elevator Guy (I refuse to call it ElevatorGate, come on people, that hasn’t been funny since CrackerGate). That is to say we’re so sick of it that we feel compelled to read every blog and watch every video we find on the topic and then pontificate on the subject at length in the comments section in the most smug, sarcastic and polarising manner possible. That goes for people on both sides, by the way, but more on that later.
So, I have decided it will probably save me time and effort in the long-run if I just put all of my thoughts on the main aspects of this drama into one post that I can refer people to later. It is impossible to address EVERY side event which has since happened so you’ll have to forgive me if I pass over what you feel to be an important response.
Rebecca Watson was invited as a panelist to the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. During her talk she highlighted the under-representation of women at these events and discussed the experiences that she and other female participants have dealt with and which she feels is most responsible for the problem. Namely, that many of the men at these conferences appear to have some quite outdated notions about how to interact with women and are treating them PRIMARILY as potential conquests rather than equal contributors. To put it plainly, many of the women come to these events hoping for thought-provoking exchanges with like-minded individuals but leave them wondering if they had just accidentally stumbled into a singles bar during happy-hour.
Later on that evening Ms. Watson was in the hotel bar with several other attendees discussing this and other topics. At 4am she decided to call it a night, saying that she was exhausted and really needed to go to bed. She then left the bar and went into the elevator, a few moments later a man who had also just been in the bar got on also.
Note: I am not in any way accusing Elevator Guy (henceforth to be referred to as EG) of deliberately following her, for all I know when he heard her make mention of the late hour he could have thought to himself, “Wow, it is late. I might call it a night too.” I don’t wish to assign guilty motives where innocent ones can easily be inferred.
It was at this point that EG put his foot in it and said to Ms. Watson;
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”
There are numerous reasons why this, while very polite, was a very thoughtless thing to do. They are as follows,
1: She made it perfectly clear that she was exhausted, don’t tell someone you think they’re interesting and immediately follow-up with proof that you weren’t paying attention to a word they said.
2: She had just spent the day explaining that she finds advances at these events highly annoying. So doing something that can easily be construed as a come-on, such as inviting her back to your room at 4am, is a no-no. If your intent really was to just have an engaging conversation, then you should have simply said that you hope you can discuss it further tomorrow morning, she is exhausted after all (see point 1).
3: If you did have something else on your mind besides coffee, that’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s not a crime. However, this was obviously not the time or the place, especially since you had not spoken so much as one word to her all evening prior to this. You had several hours to engage with her in conversation in a setting that was much more comfortable. If instead, you had spoken with her and others around her throughout the night and THEN asked her on the elevator if she wished to carry on the conversation, at least there would have been a conversation to carry on. As it was, however, the invitation came out of nowhere and immediately and understandably put her on the defensive.
4: It showed complete thoughtlessness in terms of how the other person would most likely perceive the situation. Lets assume for now that EG’s motives WERE completely honest and innocent. Is there anyway, bar telepathy, that Ms. Watson could have been expected to know that? Or, is it more reasonable, given the setting, for her to consider the likelihood that “coffee” meant more than just coffee. Perhaps it seems unjust to you that EG had to suffer for other men’s sins, but please consider the situation. Ms. Watson was, as she pointed out;
in an enclosed space,
with a man she didn’t know,
in an unfamiliar location.
That is to say she was in the exact kind of situation every parent and police officer warns young women to avoid whenever possible. In such a situation would you not advise that it is in her best interest to err on the side of caution, politely decline and exit as soon as possible (i.e. do exactly what she did)? If not, why? Also, if you believe that it was unreasonable for her to be wary, can you please explain at what point a woman SHOULD become concerned in such a situation?
(Disclaimer: These are honest questions, attempts to use them to construct straw-man arguments will be summarily ignored.)
In defense of EG, I think he was guilty of social ineptitude and thoughtlessness, little else. If he had paused for a moment to consider how it looked from the other side my guess is he would have simply said goodnight and left any attempt to initiate a conversation until the morning. Given the fact that it was 4am and alcohol was involved it is somewhat understandable that he exercised poor judgement but that does not absolve him of his personal responsibility to consider the other person. He made a mistake and (hopefully) learned from it.
A few days later and Ms. Watson posts a video detailing her trip to Ireland and participation in the conference. Towards the end of the video she makes mention of the elevator incident as follows;
“I loved talking to you guys…all of you except for the one man who didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel because at the bar later that night, actually at four in the morning, we were at the hotel bar…
4AM…I said, “You know I’ve had enough guys, I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed.”
So I walk to the elevator and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’
Just a word to the wise here guys, 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 in a foreign country at 4am 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 sexualise me in that manner.
So, yeah. But everybody else seemed to really get it and thank you for getting it.”
I have already covered most of the points raised by this but I have to take issue with Rebecca on one small point here. When she says “…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 sexualise me in that manner” she has, by default, inferred that EG was definitely sexualising her and leaves no room for more innocent motivations on his part. Unless you have absolute certainty about a situation it is best to avoid absolute statements of fact.
Within hours the video comments section was full of comments that completely ignored all context and launched straight into melodramatic hyperbole, such as
“How dare men sexual a woman?! That’s just insane! Stupid bitches, it must be pretty terrible to always be a victim.”
“The only sexism I see here is women assuming that a man who politely asks them up to his hotel room must, naturally, be a deranged rapist.”
There were also similarly fallacious comments assuming EG’s absolute, automatic guilt from the other side. These occurred much less frequently but that may have more to do with the fact that the video has since become swamped with trolls. (italics mine);
“…dude, it was 4am and he followed her into the elevator, but you conveniently disregarded that little slice of reality so you could impose your very own hateful reality.”
“… here’s the smoking gun: the dude never spoke to her, but as soon as she leaves he follows her, which smacks of predation…”
To such people I have a question. If you must gut out all of the context and details of someone else’s position or assume things as true with little or no evidence before you can make an argument, what does that tell you?
Like I said, I think she was incorrect in stating that he had sexualised her but, given the details of that particular incident, she had every right to be wary. In fact, I don’t think it is going too far to say that it would have been foolish of her NOT to be concerned, at least to some degree.
The Case Of The ‘Privileged’ Professor
So the flame wars were well and truly underway in the comments section and soon other bloggers were making mention of the topic and adding their particular take on the events described. When PZ Myers posted aPharyngula entry supportive of Watson’s position it was soon responded to by Richard Dawkins in the comment section. The response went as follows;
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 at least grow a thicker skin.
Many in the thread were unsure as to what, precisely, was the point he was attempting to make and if he was suggesting that because there are much worse things happening elsewhere western women shouldn’t complain about less harmful things closer to home. He replied thusly;
“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. … 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.
… The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they’d have had good reason to complain.”
In a subsequent post, wherein Prof Myers confirmed that it was the actual Dawkins making these statements, Dawkins gave his (thus far) final opinion on the matter
“…But my point is that the ‘slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.
But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let’s ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.
No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here’s how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.”
All in all, I have to say that Prof. Dawkins initially made the same mistake of completely erasing all context from the situation. If this conversation had taken place at 2PM in a large, crowded, public space then things would have been completely different. But that’s not how it occurred and when I see people consistently avoiding context when making a counter-argument I can’t help but suspect that they are aware that that is the case. Also, while the hotel may have been “crowded”, at 4am I doubt its corridors were considering that the vast of its occupants were probably fast asleep in their rooms. So I’m sorry, but that argument is simply a non-starter.
As to the rest of his points I believe Prof. Myers addressed them better than I could so I will post his complete reply here. This post has been updated several times so make sure to scroll all the way to the end to make sure that you’re not missing something that wasn’t there if/when you originally saw the post. One thing I disagree with Prof Myers on, as I did with Ms. Watson, is the assumption of sexualisation on the part of EG. Other than that I agree with almost everything he says. The main points I want to emphasise are;
“However, the existence of greater crimes does not excuse lesser crimes, and no one has even tried to equate this incident to any of the horrors above. What these situations demand is an appropriate level of response: a man who beats a woman to death has clearly committed an immensely greater crime than a man who harasses a woman in an elevator; let us fit the punishment to the crime. Islamic injustice demands a worldwide campaign of condemnation of the excesses and inhumanity of that religion.
The elevator incident demands…a personal rejection and a woman nicely suggesting to the atheist community that they avoid doing that. And that is what it got.”
“I’m taking one last stab at explaining this. Imagine that Richard Dawkins meets a particularly persistent fan who insists on standing uncomfortably close to him, and Richard asks him to stand back a little bit; when he continues, he says to the rest of the crowd that that is rather rude behavior, and could everyone give him a little breathing space? Which then leads to many members of the crowd loudly defending the rudeness by declaring that since the guy wasn’t assaulting him, he should be allowed to keep doing that, and hey, how dare Richard Dawkins accuse everyone present of trying to mug him!
That’s exactly analogous to Rebecca Watson’s situation. She did not make these hysterical accusations everyone is claiming, she did not compare herself to the oppressed women of the third world, she did not demonize the clumsy sap in the elevator — she asked for some simple common courtesy, and for that she gets pilloried.
Sorry, people, but that sends a very clear signal to women that calm requests for respect will be met with jeers by a significant subset of the atheist community, and that’s not right.”
If Ms. Watson chooses to boycott Prof. Dawkins that is her decision but I will not be following her example. I personally do not feel that disagreement on this one issue is sufficient to warrant a complete boycott of anything and everything Dawkins, this is purely a matter of subjective opinion and everyone is free to decide based on their own feelings on the matter.
Watson Vs. McGraw
While I disagree with Ms. McGraws opinion on the substance of her argument and agree with Ms Watson for the most part, I cannot agree with the manner in which Ms. Watson ‘called out’ Ms. McGraw over a dissenting blog. She did so at the beginning of a talk in which she was scheduled to speak on the Religious Rights effects on feminist issues, not that of the atheist community. If she had wanted to mention this issue she could easily have worked it in during the question and answers session afterwards. This left Ms. McGraw in a position where she then had to sit through a one hour talk before she even had the option of offering a rebuttal, poor form in my opinion.
I feel that it is much better manners to continue exchanges in the appropriate forum, namely that in which it was initiated and where both parties have equal ability to respond to the other. It may not have been Ms. Watson’s intent to come across as petty and somewhat spiteful in this instance, but remember, it may not have been EG’s intent to come across as creepy either. Ms. Watson was just as responsible for the perception created by her choice of timing as was EG.
It is an unfortunate truth in our society that sexual assaults and rape are still relatively common, with some estimates stating that 1 in 4 women will be victim of a rape or attempted rape.
(For anyone thinking of making the point that this means 3 out of 4 women are unduly paranoid, don’t. That’s not how it works and you know it. There is no way of knowing which side of the line you’ll end up on until after the fact, the best you can do is exercise due caution. Consider how much convincing you would need to play a one man game of Russian Roulette? There’s a 5 out of 6 chance that your brains WON’T end up on the ceiling, right?)
Finally, The people at these events are grown men, predominantly aged 30-60, who should know better by now. Sorry guys, but boys will be boys simply doesn’t cut it. It is not a woman’s role to constantly monitor your behaviour and to be blunt, you need to grow the hell up and take some personal responsibility. I have just as much testosterone in my veins as any other man, not all of us (or even, I hope, most of us) use it as an excuse. It is the responsibility of everyone, man or woman, to consider the perspective of the person they are dealing with and if necessary adapt their behaviour to suit the given situation.
For those of you who still, after all this, consider Ms. Watson’s initial unease in the elevator to be completely unjustifiable, here’s some reading material that you should familiarise yourself with before making proclamations that women are simply over-reacting.
Advice to women to reduce instances of sexual assault (see anything familiar?):
Peer-reviewed literature regarding Victim blaming and the prevalence of Rape Myth Acceptance (can you guess which gender is by far most likely to perpetuate false stereotypes regarding rape?)