Sexism At Skeptics Conferences–Part One. The Problem.

With only six or so weeks to go until the big kahuna of skeptics conferences in the USA, The Amaz!ing Meeting, the issue of sexual harassment at is rearing its ugly head again.

For those of you who do not  follow the skepticsphere and are thus blissfully unaware of the controversy, the issue arose  pre-TAM last year in the guise of the “elevatorgate” crisis.  Elevatorgate came to the fore after B-list celebrity skeptic Rebecca Watson made an off-hand reference in a public speech advising men not to emulate the behavior of a cad who propositioned her in a hotel elevator in the early hours of the morning. (FWIW, calling Rebecca B-list is not supposed to be an insult, I am just trying to place her on the skeptical map, a step below A-Listers such as James Randi and Michael Shermer).  Rebecca made what in retrospect was an off-hand and innocent comment.  The skeptical internet seemed to explode with acrimony, divided, it seemed between the feminists on one side and anti-feminists on the other.  Those of us falling into neither camp (self-included) watched on in horror as the skeptics movement looked like a house divided.

Recently, following CFI’s Women In Secularism conference, a number of  skeptic/freethinker bloggers have opined on the issue, including: JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan (one), Stephanie Zvan (two), Skatje Myers, Greta Christina (one), Greta Christina (two), and Greta Christina (three).

The general gist of the commentary is: (1) sexual harassment by men against women is an problem at skeptics conferences; (2) some of this harassment is carried out by the speakers/celebrities at the conferences; (3) the sexual harassment can be harmful, not to mention demeaning and hurtful; and (4) something needs to be done about it. In comments to the blogs, and on Facebook and other places, reactions have ranged from “right on sister!” to “give me a break, it’s not a problem, and we are here to discuss skeptical issues, not militant feminism.”

As a non-feminist, and (hopefully!) non-harasser, I would like to give my take.

First off, it is a problem.  For the women on the receiving end, it can be a big problem.  I will try to look at this through a lens completely different from those who see “male privilege” everywhere or believe that every slight is an example of a society designed to allow men to oppress women.  I am not talking here about an offhand joke or comment  that may offend someone.   I am not talking about flirting.  I am talking about behavior that is either threatening, or is repeated and unwelcome.  Many skeptic men react to the suggestion that sexual harassment exists at events like TAM by feeling insulted.   They have never witnessed sexual harassment at a skeptic event.  They feel insulted because they believe that they themselves are being accused of sexism, or inappropriate behavior.  They also feel that the men who go to events like TAM are like them: educated, sensitive, and intelligent.  They know how to act around women, they know appropriate boundaries, and therefore so must all other men in their position.  If only it were so.  It is an unfortunate fact that skeptic events like TAM are almost custom made environments for sexual harassment.

As a Human Resources professional, I know that sexual harassment is a serious problem in the workplace.  It happens in the workplace much more often than people think.  It is d0ne by educated men, intelligent men, family men, married man, and men who not only should know better, but do know better.   In my experience, it is a result of three factors: (1) Personality; (2) Proximity, and (3) Opportunity.

The Personality part has to do with the personality of the men who commit sexual harassment.  They are a small percentage of men.  In my experience, you can take any random group of 100 men–random by age, education level, intelligence, economic/social background, national origin, etc–and among those 100 men will a handful, somewhere between two and five, who are inclined to engage in serious sexual harassment.  I am convinced that these men have a personality disorder.  Sometimes the personality disorder is obvious, and they get a reputation for being creepy.  More often the personality disorder is only apparent with the other two factors come into play.  When the sexually harassing behavior of these men is revealed, most people that know them are shocked that they have done it.  If we assume that there are 1,000 males at an event like TAM, then by my reckoning you have something like 20 to 50 men  you have to worry about.

The Proximity part is pretty obvious.  Sexual harassment generally happens when the perpetrator and the victim are in close quarters and are exposed to each other on a prolonged basis.  Proximity also amplifies the impact that the harassing behavior has on the victim.  The victim knows that they will have to see the perpetrator again.  They know that the behavior is likely to be repeated.  They often know and like the perpetrator, and have difficulty coming to grips emotionally with the fact that a respected co-worker or colleague acted in a horrible way.  Also, proximity allows the perpetrators to get to know their victims and focus on them.  Most sexual harassers do not harass every women they come in contact with.  Some may become fixated on a particular woman, and that usually takes repeated contact to develop.  Some may target any woman that they feel is vulnerable and unlikely to report the behavior, and that takes a little time to learn.  At a skeptics event like TAM, where we repeatedly see each other in the conference venue, in the hallways, in the bar, at meals, in elevators, and at parties, proximity is present.

Then we get to opportunity.  There are many social settings that are not amenable to sexually harassing behavior because there are too many people within earshot.  Sexual harassers almost always know that what they are doing is wrong, and they don’t want witnesses.  So they wait until they are in one-on-one situations, which abound in the workplace, and at events like TAM.  This one-on-one situation can happen in a crowd, it can happen in a bar–it can happen any time where other people are not paying attention to what the sexual harasser is doing.

So, at a skeptics event like TAM we have all the classic ingredients to make it an ideal place for sexual harassers to victimize women, but we have more than that.  Unlike the workplace or a school, an event like TAM lacks the moderating influences that act discourage sexually harassing behavior.  If you sexually harass women at the workplace you can get fired, and if you do so at school you can get expelled.  Men know this, and it discourages many of them from engaging in sexually harassing behavior.  This moderating influence is present at almost every other conference we experience.  Most conferences are work-related.  You are literally on the job.  You are surrounded by your professional colleagues, and you can suffer the same consequences for misbehavior as you would at the workplace.  The moderating factors present at work and school are almost completely nonexistent at an event like TAM, unless someone does something so bad that they get arrested.  The most that can happen to a sexual harasser is that they get expelled from the conference, which is a minor inconvenience compared to the consequences at other venues.  This lack of consequences is amplified by other factors, like the presence of alcohol and the feeling of euphoria many feel when being away from the stresses and reality of work and home life.

I would thus argue that a skeptic event like TAM is a custom-made environment for sexual harassment to occur.  For women who experience it, it can be a extremely traumatic.  It can certainly make them feel unwelcome and threatened.  The next question, then, is what to do about it.  That will be addressed in my next post.

  • Sally Strange

    You lost me at “not a feminist.”

    Whyever not?

    • admin

      I’m not an anything-ist. I think once you attach -ist to the end of your philosophy, you risk turning off your brain and accepting an all encompassing ideology that you are supposed to accept in all circumstances.


  • D.J. Grothe

    I appreciate that you took the time to make this post, albeit anonymously. As a gay man I feel I’m sensitive to issues of sexism and homosexism. The increasing number of blog posts that folks are making about purported sexism and sexual harassment at TAM and other skeptics (or atheist) conferences are helpful if they highlight ways we can improve our various events. But when these posts amount to little more than unfounded claims and rumor, they may result in an undesired effect. Allow me to respond by repeating some of the things I said in another recent discussion on this topic.

    It is true that harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence). But before we take as a given your charged assertion that at “skeptics event[s] like TAM we have all the classic ingredients to make it an ideal place for sexual harassers to victimize women,” let’s stop and ask ourselves, as skeptics (who often say that we prize evidence) if there is any evidence or data on this issue.

    First, it should be said that there has never been a report filed of sexual harassment at TAM to my knowledge and there have been zero reports of harassment at the TAMs we’ve put on while I’ve been at JREF.

    Of course that doesn’t mean such didn’t happen. But because of repeated claims by some that sexual harassment is rampant at these sorts of conferences, we attempted last year to see if we could get some data that would take us past the online culture of gossip and rumor. So we distributed a survey to attendees of TAM last year. Of 800+ responses to this comprehensive survey, only two people reported feeling “unwelcome” at the event. Both of these respondents were men. One was a conservative who felt several speakers insulted his political beliefs. The other was a retiree who “hates” magic.

    11 respondents to the survey did report a problem with an interaction with someone else that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. 3 of them were men who did not elaborate on the interaction and 3 were from women who did not elaborate on the interaction. Another was a woman who reported a speaker was rude to her when she asked for a photo. Another was a woman who was made fun of for not being an atheist. Another was a woman who was ridiculed for being a vegetarian. Another was a woman who reported no specific incident but claimed her enjoyment of the event was negatively affected by the “drama surrounding elevator gate” and “having to hear everyone talk about it.” Finally, one women did report feeling uncomfortable around a man, fearing he may harass her in the future, and while we are concerned about such concerns, she didn’t complain of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on. Importantly, all 11 of these respondents nonetheless reported feeling welcome at TAM.

    I believe I understand the impulse to protect people from harm (this is a strong motivation for skeptics, after all) but telling newbies that they need to be especially on guard against so-called sexual predators at our events, or that the freethought or skeptics movement is “unsafe for women,” may be a sure-fire way of making some women feel unwelcome who otherwise would feel and be both safe and welcomed. We are against harassment or bullying of any kind, sexual or otherwise. Any incident of harassment or assault should immediately be reported to security and law enforcement, and JREF staff and the hotel staff stand ready to assist should any regrettable incident ever occur, God forbid. But again, no such incident has ever occurred at TAM to my knowledge, and I believe that bears mentioning, and repeating, in current discussions about how prevalent are the unnamed “sexual predators” at various atheist and skeptical events.

    Last year at TAM we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant decrease, and judging from the dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various parts of the “blogosphere” that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been no reports of such harassment at the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.)

    We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking (which I suspect this is in response to a post contra Lawrence Krauss at Skepchick), and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me personally that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism or in society in general, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

    D.J. Grothe
    President, James Randi Educational Foundation

    • admin

      DJ, I agree with many of the statements in your comment, but if there is one thing I have learned in my work in Human Resources, it is that recipients of sexual harassment are often very reluctant to report it. There are many reasons for this, including embarrassment, self-blame, and a desire not to make waves.

      I will also say this, I have never witnessed sexual harassment at TAM when I have been there, although there was one encounter I had with a really creepy guy who I thought was about to do something vile to a woman napping in a hallway while waiting for an evening event. I went so far as to wake the woman up and tell her about the creepy guy. My later understanding is that this particular creepy guy had been later banned from TAM for at least a year, but still showed up to the SouthPoint and was a regular (and obnoxious) feature in the Del Mar.

      I am actually on your side on this issue, and I think that the bru-ha-ha has been way overblown. Hence my second post, advising the people who are complaining to put their money where their mouths are, and to name names. If they are not willing to actually do that, then maybe they don’t really believe the problem is as bad as they say it is.


  • D.J. Grothe

    Is there a good reason why my response on Sunday to your post mentioning TAM hasn’t been approved and still shows as “awaiting moderation”? Again, appreciate your post and hope to be able to engage on some of your assertions therein. Cheers,


    • admin

      Sorry DJ! Mea culpa. I guess I did not have the correct settings and my system did not notify me that I had comments to approve. I appreciate your response.


  • Astrokid Nj

    As a Human Resources professional, I know that sexual harassment is a serious problem in the workplace.

    Good post, but I wish you had talked about the other side of the sexual harassment coin..that of false allegations, without which we are speaking only in half-truths. I would expect the Skeptic community to understand the psychological biases that result in these (look at what GirlWritesWhat says below)

    1) So many men have been royally fucked by the widespread thinking that women have very little agency and are thus victims. That women are objectified and men are the sole agents.

    2) Plenty of women heartlessly make false allegations for very little reason.. as in the following cab-driver episode, and get away with it all the time.

    3) They can step-up the ante and even go further.. to allege rape.. just because they are dissatisfied with some aspect of the encounter (see Eugene Kanin’s paper from 1990s)
    They often destroy men’s reputations and their lives (remember Domique Strauss Khan?)
    Brian Banks, CA Football Player, Exonerated Of Rape Charges After Over 5 Years In Prison (PHOTOS)
    The truth hurts rape liar 3 yrs. in prison for framing innocent man

    women are assholes the other sex as much as men are, and thats a fact that people individually dont accept due to their psychologies, and as a consequence society doesnt accept either.