I like going to public lectures; I’ve met some great friends and friends who became colleagues there, many of whom I saw last weekend at the post Pod Delusion Live drinks. I’ve spoken at Ignite, done the odd Skeptics in the Pub as part of a double act with Martin Robbins and will be giving a solo presentation about my own hobby horse at Leicester in January, but I don’t feel that my attendance at things like Skeptics is an identity that represents me the way that some of the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics contretemps so I’m going to demonstrate the levelling power of the internet and stick my oar in.
The issue of the day is sexism/feminism and the debate is splitting down two rough sides: those who find religion immoral or irritating and want to campaign against it with no time devoted to anything else, and those whose objection to religion is part of a generally progressive agenda (frequently called ‘social justice’), and who feel that organised atheism is in danger of replicating the same old problems which religions have perpetuated.
Part of the problem here is that skepticism and feminism are coming from different traditions: feminism has historically been less concerned about evidence and more about consciousness-raising, while skepticism treats evidence as a gold standard and denigrates anecdotes (valued in feminism as ‘lived experience’) as meaningless. Many feminists treat a speaker’s identity as central to their credibility (this is where concepts like ‘mansplaining’ come in) while skepticism is about ignoring the identity of the speaker and focusing solely on the quality of evidence or logic they present. It’s easy to see how these different ways of looking at the world could magnify any argument and turn mild disagreements into longlasting bitter hostility, even before the current level of childishness, name-calling and abuse started.
Now after all that summary, I want to talk about my experience of sexism and harassment. Skeptics, you can dismiss this as an N=1 anecdote, but please at least read it. I have personally witnessed a prominent person getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women and getting away with it, despite the knowledge of nearly everyone who knows him. What’s more I’m willing to bet that you know who I am talking about from just reading the previous sentence.
I first became aware of this at the beginning of last year, though since I voiced my concerns to others I have been hearing that the behaviour in question has been going a lot longer than that. I was at a Skeptics in the Pub, chatting to some friends and getting a drink at the bar (I am a teetotaller, so you can be assured that none of my account has been blurred by intoxication). I heard a bit of a commotion, turned round and saw this fellow (who had had a few drinks) giving an unwilling woman a hug- not a friendly hug, but one which led crotch first, grabbing her around the hips/bum and leaning in as the she bent right back to escape his advances. It was the sort of thing that could have been a joke but as it went on it became clear that she wasn’t playing. Now she didn’t scream or shout or anything, but she was certainly uncomfortable and it was unpleasant to witness. Right there I did something rather cowardly- I convinced myself that I hadn’t seen anything significant. The fact that I remember it so clearly today tells you that this was self-deception, but it was right on the boundary of being ok. I didn’t know either of these people personally, it might have been play-acting, etc. You make up reasons not to get involved.
It was only when I saw this happen again and again that I realised that there was a pattern to this behaviour- it went so far as to be pushing up against the level at which bystanders would start intervening, but not quite going over it. Over time, as his power and influence grew I noticed that he could go further and further and get away with it. Once someone’s prominence gets to a certain point it becomes very hard to criticise them. You think that if they were a predator someone else would have noticed or complained- surely some of those prominent feminist women (and men) in the media with whom he associates would have said something? I don’t know whether they are intimidated or what, but not one has commented in public.
In private, a number of stories have been circulating for years, many of which are more serious than the incidents I have described. I can’t verify any of these accounts, but the fact that they are readily accepted is telling.
So what to do? If you think this post might be about you, then take responsibility for your behaviour and apologise where necessary. If you see this behaviour, don’t stay silent.
For all the fact that this has pissed me off a huge amount, I am wary of naming the offending person. He’s someone with a lot of clout, someone who could make life very difficult for anyone who identified him. I feel it’s up to someone whom he has victimised to make that call, but if that’s you and you are reading this then I will absolutely back you up.
I’m posting this with comments closed, I suppose what this has taught me is that it is perfectly possible for a problem like this to exist, not really tolerated but not ever really dealt with either. Let’s knock this on the head before something more serious happens, because experience has taught me that it almost certainly will.
*********** Update ***********
After posting this, the response has been amazing, but I want to clarify a few points. For readers coming here from the States: we don’t have a First Amendment here, so I would be in legal danger if I named the person I am talking about. My father is a Barrister and looked over my post- this is as far as I can go as I am not the direct victim. Don’t like it? Join me in supporting Index on Censorship. What I can do is say that I have seen the behaviour and so have many many other who have contacted me after seeing this post. If somebody comes forward, you will not be alone.
Very sadly indeed I have had had several DMs and tweets from at least 5 different women identifying themselves as the victim in the example I described, which tells you exactly how widespread this problem behaviour is.
*********** Subsequent Update ***********
A very helpful policeman posted a comment on Facebook, reproduced here with permission:
This is dealt with in other circles I belong to… it’s called sexual assault (section 3 of sexual offences act 2003).
The specific part of legislation which refers is “Touching is widely defined and includes with any part of the body, or with anything else, and can be through clothing. In In R v H (Karl Anthony)  2 Cr. App. R. 9, the Court of Appeal held that the touching of an individual’s clothing was sufficient to amount to ‘touching’ for the purposes of section 3. “
The other points made in the blog describe the individual as someone important in the circle… the same law suggests “abuse of position” which may have a consideration too.