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.