This post has been floating around in my “Drafts” folder for a while, and I’ve been starting and stopping it because I couldn’t really get to a good explanation of what sexual objectification is, but lucky for me the discussion has cropped up elsewhere (Skepchick brought it to my attention) and a TED Talk does the hard work for me about why sexual objectification is a problem.

The Sexy Lie: Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth@SanDiego

So that’s the resource I am directing you to, and if you have problems with the analysis in this resource, please address them at the YouTube site. I didn’t make the video and don’t want to argue about it. If you think have a better resource for people about sexual objectification, leave a link in the comment section.

But then I hear things like this: “I’m not sexually objectifying her–she’s sexually objectifying herself!” and that’s a misunderstanding I want to clear up. Women do not sexually objectify themselves. Women make choices for themselves that may result in other people sexually objectifying them (homework: read up on the “Patriarchal Bargain”), but that is not their responsibility if someone else sexually objectifies them. The responsibility for sexual objectification falls on the person doing the objectifying. And this is a lot of what feels like talking in circles, so let me try to make it clearer with examples from grammar class and sentence construction.

Remember the lessons about how it’s not a complete sentence if there’s not a subject and a predicate? Well, the subject is the part of the sentence that is doing the action. Objects are the part of speech that have actions performed to them, with no input. The action affects them–they do not affect it.

She (subject) bought (action) the book (object).
The dog (subject) ate (action) his barf (object).
The car (subject) hit (action) the garage wall (object) at what I swear was essentially zero miles per hour.
He (subject) objectified (action) her (object).

But! But! But! they say. But, but, she was in a low-cut blouse! She WANTED to be sexually objectified. I did it, yes, but she did it to herself, first. This is a misunderstanding of what has happened. Once more for emphasis: A woman does not sexually objectify herself. She is the subject of the sentence that is her life, not the object..

She (subject) wore (action) sexy clothes (object).

When a woman is being sexually objectified, someone else’s sexual dreams/goals/desires are being projected onto her. These dreams/goals/desires have everything to do with the subject of that sentence and nothing to do with the woman being gazed at or objectified. It’s all in the subject’s head. All of it. The woman is a stand-in for what he (almost always a he) wants in this (metaphorical) sentence, and her dreams/goals/desires are totally irrelevant. She doesn’t matter beyond the point of what she can deliver to him for is own purposes.

What gets overlooked so often is that the woman has made decisions and has dreams/goals/desires of her own. There is a chance that her dreams/goals/desires overlap with the man objectifying her, but that still doesn’t mean she’s an object. She decided to wear those clothes in order to portray an image that suits her purposes. She has agency. She is acting. She is hoping to gain some personal benefit with her actions, and she has used her brain to think up a strategy that will help her meet her goals.

So this woman wearing sexy clothes to a bar? She is probably seeking a certain kind of attention that she wants (woman as subject). She’s not there to make the bar more fun for you by giving you something to look at (woman as object). This woman working as an underwear model? She is probably trying to earn a living and garner some security using skills and assets she worked hard to gain (woman as subject). She’s not there so you can jerk off to the catalog she appears in (woman as object). You want to have fun by seeing women in sexy clothes or jerk off to pictures of them in their underwear? Fine. Be the subject of your life! But don’t make the HUGE mistake of forgetting that you only have these women around performing these actions that you find personally beneficial because they had something to gain from the interaction. They aren’t there to serve you; they are serving themselves. They don’t dress or undress to make your life better; they are making their own life better.

Women are subjects, not objects. If you forget that… if you forget all that context in which women are making decisions that help them navigate a world that is structured to diminish their agency… if you fail to see them as people doing their best to get by just like you are… if you persist in assuming that women with goals that coincidentally match yours were working to meet your goals and not their own… you are developing bad habits and causing great harm.

Two shocking things happened tonight.

1. I decided to finally sit down and write again.
2. I went to the local skeptics group meeting, which I haven’t done for years and years and years. I used to be a member of the local skeptics group but got out of the habit, but then two OTHER things happened tonight (and that’s as fractal as I’ll get): a) The topic was Women in Secularism and b) my rehearsal was canceled so I had a free evening. (Does that sound glamorous to say my rehearsal was canceled? Because it was.)

I am happy I went. Everyone was very nice, and it was nice to see some of the people still participating that were there when I was a regular, even if they didn’t remember me (and I did not make a real effort to reintroduce myself). Their scholarship program for the giant annual student science fair is still going strong, and I think they said they gave out eight awards a year–cash and organization membership–and that it was a very positive experience for adult and child participants. I got to sit at the discussion table with all the members, and there was a big friendly dog there and cookies, and I got to speak a few times and even though I was a stranger who wandered in basically off the street what I said was taken as seriously as anyone else. I had some good conversations after the meeting and even left with a phone number and an invitation to meet for coffee! 😉

I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

In the end, the meeting went exactly as I should have expected.

I’m not really sure what to say about it. The attendance was heavily skewed toward retirement age, but I’d say that men and women were equally in attendance. It was pointed out that three of the five board members were women, and despite the president’s initial confessions of apprehension over the sensitivity of the topic and the fear of acrimony, it was a civil conversation about a lot of different things, none of which actually really addressed the topic of women in secularism.

The meeting started with a reading from an article by Susan Jacoby in the September/October 2012 issue of The Humanist. It was a very interesting article, that I’m not really going to recap or discuss here. It was a great start, and it led almost immediately to a lot of pontificating and Interesting Historical Reporting about Things Barely Tangential to the Topic. We learned about quirks of ancient religions, about passages from the Quran, about all kinds of things! You know what we didn’t learn about? Why secular women worked so hard last year to put on Women in Secularism 2012, and why they decided it was worth the effort to put in on again in 2013. We were told quite definitively that there were not and had never been “real” matrilineal and or matriarchal societies, even though one member had described her travels to a modern-day one within the past 20 years (because science). It reminded me, really, of how online you’ll see these discussions deflect immediately to Lamentations of Women in the World Who Have It Way Worse than You. I don’t know if people just liked to hear themselves talk, or show off what they know, or if this was a deliberate avoidance tactic because people were nervous about an angry conversation if they really got to business or what, and it lacked the patronizing tones of “Dear Muslima,” but the effect was the same. (And I said so as forcefully as I could while trying to be a polite guest in a new environment.)

Interestingly, after I said this, one of the women regulars expressed concern that skeptics and atheists in the US weren’t taking strong enough stands against the attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms (which started to turn into another pontification/mini-lecture about Rand Paul), and the moderator said something along the lines of “We’re here to discuss whether politics even belong in skeptical conversations and you’re both off topic.” And there it ended. And then it was suggested that because there was so much to cover about sexism online and sexual harassment, they’d probably have a continuation of the discussion at the next meeting.

At the very end, a different woman member made the observation that the list of topics within the women in secularism discussion was created by men without asking for any input from women at all.

The next meeting, then, is when they’ll be discussing “what happened to Michael Shermer” and whether sexism exists, and if there’s any truth to the claims that women are being harassed and name-called online, and if it’s really just some anonymous rabble-rousers who may not even be skeptics doing this divide and conquer thing (yes, they admitted that sounded a little conspiracyish), and also to present the male point of view about sexism in skepticism, because, well, obvious, because balance? I dunno. It wasn’t really explained why the men’s point of view needed to be brought up. And it’s kind of the meeting I thought would be happening tonight. And it’s a sad thing to say, but it’s highly likely I’m not going to be there.

And not because I’m going to be busy, because I probably could get myself there if I wanted. But I was talking to the president after the meeting, and I asked him what the organization was hoping to get from discussing this topic, and he said he’d been surprised to learn about all the controversy (it’s finally bubbled to the awareness of people who get all their information from offline sources!) and that the best course of action for a skeptics group to take would be to examine the evidence and decide for themselves if sexism really was happening.

He said they would probably come to that conclusion–that it was actually happening–next meeting. Which is good, because, well, yeah. But they had to examine the evidence for themselves because–again–that’s what good skeptics do. And I asked, then what? So what happens if you decide that sexism is happening? And the answer was a good one: They want to put anti-harassment policies in place.


But, sigh.

Really? IF it’s happening? I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of people who aren’t fatigued by this subject, and who are exploring the controversy for the first time, and are probably sincerely hoping that the skeptical movement (and this group definitely puts itself in the skeptical movement rather than the humanist movement) has its best foot forward. And I wish I’d taken the time to write it down but I thought I would remember the quote the president ended with about how a community will never thrive if it fails to fully respect half its members. That was the take-home idea, and he read it twice–with feeling.

But even within this group with its 50/50 membership and leadership, it was a lot of splaining by men to the women of What It’s Like Out There and How Things Used to Be, and some You Didn’t See What You Thought You Saw, with a dash of Women Are Complicit in Their Own Oppression and Those Topics Don’t Belong Here, and I’m just tired of that, and it doesn’t make it more palatable even in the complete and utter absence of Hey You’re So Pretty and If We Joke about Harassment That’s Funny. I feel like I can predict that the guys next week will find some reasons to explain why the women who complain about harassment are influenced by their emotions, how they shouldn’t complain so much because focus/remember when/derailment, and even when they all do agree that sexism exists within the movement and harassment policies help, it’s more of an intellectual exercise for them to go through. That women’s topics are still just for women. That men blaming women in burkas for being too sexy instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior only happens Over There. That science shows no viable, alternative ways of men and women interacting have ever existed. That the status quo is too hard to change. And next month’s meeting–despite being part 2 of the conversation*–is also the last meeting before science fair business comes up (the science fair is in March and they’ll have some organizing to do with volunteer judges and settling prize amounts et cetera), and no one wants to have the kind of discussion that leaves people angry, and I honestly can’t see much productive coming out of it. The kind of conclusions they are going to draw have already been drawn over and over again, and I don’t think I can add much to it.

*In which we discover what has happened to Michael Shermer, which wasn’t answered when I asked the question at the meeting tonight because it’s functioning as a teaser to get me back there, I guess…

I know, I know, with women and socialization and manners and stuff, but I don’t really want to be the stranger that shows up and antagonizes everyone because I think THEYR DOIN IT WRONG. It’s not my group. They want what they want and are perfectly capable of identifying and meeting their own needs, and honestly, I can’t imagine a single thing bad coming out of this. And if their pace is slower than my pace, that’s my issue to deal with, which I am dealing with quite nicely from home.

That said…

The conversations I had with the people–the president, the members–were so nice and welcoming, and I was amused in one of those sad, cynical ways how the women gathered afterward to reaffirm amongst themselves how the guys basically missed the point and yep. The guys basically missed the point. There was some minor self-blaming for the guys missing the point based on the women not being clear enough, which is silly because we all understood exactly what the point was. And I am really looking forward to calling the one woman on the phone who had to leave early and talking to her more, and I wish I had the free time to join those two women who drove all the way out to the next county this morning to go to an atheist book club at The Coffee Bean with twenty other people and who attend Civil Conversations at the Coco’s every Monday night (and put up with pontificating, interrupting men there), and I wish I could hang out more with the woman who brought up the fact that women weren’t asked what they thought was important to discuss, but, well, I stopped attending these meetings regularly for a reason. I’d already hit my fill of dowsing and Bible codes (once you get it, you get), and my patience for pontificating is low. I would love to have some sort of women’s group that met separately from the main group, and I’ll express that if I ever do actually end up meeting that one woman for coffee (she doesn’t email. :(), but the rest of it… I dunno. I’m not really in a position to organize that myself. Interloper I can do fine, but poacher? Plus I’m supposed to be looking for a job, which, if found, would take up a lot of my time.

I do promise to look more regularly at the meeting calendar, however. You never know when things might change! And there was not a single person there I wouldn’t mind talking to again outside of the meeting context. The possibilities are endless.

The Garden of Evening Mists

It is very far off-topic for this blog for me to be writing reviews of fictional books, but my duties as a blog owner and as a blog owner representative on The Twitter entangled me (enthusiastically) in a group read of the novels short-listed for the Man Booker prize, and I am participating in a book review collaboration at Michelle Hannell’s “Mummy Rates It” blog here. So I’m sharing it with you all, too, lest I be accused later of keeping secrets about my blog owner activities from my blog subscribers. We do things on the up and up around here.

I read (avidly) and reviewed (positively) The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The other novels shortlisted for the prize are Bringing Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel), Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil), Swimming Home (Deborah Levy), The Lighthouse (Alison Moore), and Umbrella (Will Self). Enjoy!

Update: And the prize was awarded to Mantel for Bringing Up the Bodies, which I found out today is a sequel to Wolf Hall.

Today I am following up on the theme of divisiveness, which has had the online skeptical and atheist communities all abuzz following the announcement of a woman blogger who has gone on indefinite hiatus (story here) as well as the formation of a group called Atheism+, real-life examples of how communities divide, and why, and who draws boundary lines and who gets pushed out, and what happens when small groups of people leave larger groups in order to pursue their own specific goals.

Seemingly large and very vocal groups of atheists and skeptics who do not want to splinter away from the main groups are quite unhappy that the splinter groups have been formed, and are spending a lot of time arguing about it, for a variety of reasons like these:

1. It divides the movement.
2. The new group is off topic.
3. It makes everyone in the old group look bad.
4. It drives away potential new members.
5. What the new group wants is stupid and/or pointless (and they’ve cut themselves off from criticism).
6. We need to let them know what we think.

Let’s briefly address these concerns.

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Jen McCreight, an atheist blogger and author of Blag Hag, has had enough of the harassment and abuse she receives from atheists as a person who writes for atheists about problems within atheism movement. She has quit. Hopefully just for a while, and definitely not as a leader/contributor/participant, and I’m sure the break will be good for her and I’m glad she’s put herself first.

She is not the one being divisive. The atheists who have been harassing and abusing her were being divisive. And for all of you out there clamoring (unreasonably) for “data,” here’s another real-life data point for your collection, which falls right in line with predictions.

I’m fond of starting my posts with a hypothetical scenario for demonstration purposes, so let’s have another one here.

Short Version
Woman: I am making a complaint about sexism and misogyny in skepticism.
Man: I am making a disproportionate response.

Long Version
I am noticing more and more often in reading the blogs (and probably in following the videos, although I don’t generally participate in the videosphere but have heard plenty about it) that whenever a woman makes a pretty straightforward point about sexism, there are predictably people–usually men, but not always–who show up to shut her down by flooding her with words. Written words, spoken words, short statements by lots of other people saying the same kind of thing… you’ve seen it. A woman makes a point that is met with a disproportionate response so often that you can almost bank on the inverse relationship between worthiness of the response and its word count. It’s like some sort of Feminist Godwin’s Law without Nazis: The longer the blog comment, the less likely the commenter has anything productive to contribute or is even directly engaging in the point.

Let’s get the exception out of the way so we don’t have to play gotcha in the comments section. Here is an example of a proportionate response:

Woman: I am writing a 1500-word blog post about sexism I have experienced.
Man: I am writing a 1500-word blog post in response to your blog post about sexism you have experienced.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about protesting too much, which takes many forms:

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I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that perhaps all this sturm und drang regarding the proper place of feminist ideals within the skeptical movement is just the rabble-rousing of an angry fringe. It’s not really insightful to suggest that the bulk of skeptics–the true skeptics, who are very concerned with accomplishing skeptical goals–find the all the hullabaloo about “calling out” sexism and “hijacking the movement” with “personal grudges” and generally “behaving like spoiled children who don’t know how good they have it in this world” to be a huge distraction–HUGE!–that prevents them from getting their skeptical work done. It’s definitely been suggested explicitly to me that I’m making mountains out of molehills, and I don’t speak for all women in the skeptical movement and that my Handy Guide isn’t very applicable to the skeptical community because it presents my specific beefs about what I personally don’t like as universal issues, and that the best thing for skeptics to do is let me ramble on without engaging me until I wear myself out, and then just sweep it all into the dustbin.

These arguments could be making some very good points. It is entirely possible that my quirky sense of injustice is unique to me and has no bearing on anything else. I’m just finding trouble where I want to, out of boredom or delusion or a highly Westernized sense of middle class woman entitlement or plain old cantankerousness, and if there are so many fewer active women in the skeptical movement than men, it’s for reasons entirely different than the ones I give that require solutions entirely different than the ones I suggest. Such as Ladybrains! and Who cares what the gender balance is? I care about ideas!

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This post was inspired by something I read that I cannot track down exactly, but got close. I am almost certain I read it at the A Radical Transfeminist blog, and this blog post here comes pretty close, so I’m sticking with it for now. If I stumble across what I am imagining I read before, again I’ll update the link.

For some reason, which could be related to the insidious pervasiveness of the patriarchy if you are feminist/political minded or could be related to the purported benevolent cluelessness and social awkwardness that seems to plague so many members of the skeptical community, women’s failure to provide consent is often perceived as confusing. A woman’s “no” is considered more of a negotiation point than a refusal or as inauthentic or as irrelevant, in a wide variety of contexts (and I’ve expanded on this point previously and do not feel like recapping here).

Gaining consent from a woman is also a point of confusion that frequently becomes a point of contention down the line. Consent for Behavior A or Context A is treated like Consent for All Future Behaviors or All Contexts, and the fact that a woman has provided consent in one situation seems to override all subsequent failures to provide consent, and the situation reverts to No Doesn’t Mean No (see above). What is not understood is that consent is temporary and highly context specific, and must be gained each time you want a woman to do something. Let’s run some scenarios to better make this point.

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Let’s go from the specific to the universal today.

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe is a podcast and panel of skeptics “dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science through online and other media.” I don’t know about the demographics of the listening audience, but a cursory stroll through the discussion board audience via threads on the forum reveals that by far the majority of posters are men. A stroll through the blogosphere reveals that there are far more skeptics who are men than women, to the point that the conversation frequently revolves around how to involve more women. (Hence this blog.) A recent uproar reveals that it is such a point of concern that too few women have registered for The Amazing Meeting 2012 that the president of the hosting organization (James Randi Educational Foundation) attributed this decline to women bloggers discussing the unfriendly environment women encounter in real-life and online communities. In fact, one specific woman blogger, Rebecca Watson–SGU panelist and podcaster–was named as especially responsible and she has decided to sit out this event to make a point.

Because it must be the women warning other women about potential opportunities for personal and online harassment who scare the women away (and maybe it is) and not at all the fault of the people (usually men) harassing women in person and online. Or the behavior of skeptical leaders big and small that sets the tone for what kind of behaviors general members can engage in, how they will be tolerated, and what women can expect.

For example, the moderators of the SGU Forums feel free to fight against the women who are trying to make skepticism a more welcoming place for women, and so the forum itself has become a place where people can go to fight women who are trying to reduce misogyny and sexism in the skeptical community. And you get gems of threads like this one…

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There are rumblings. There is hand-wringing. There is lamenting and gnashing of teeth, and skeptics who proudly wear the badges of Can’t Herd This Cat and Rugged Individualist and Keep Your Politics out of My Skepticism and Not a Member of a Monolith and Groupthink Not Welcome Here are doing a lot of active worrying about the impending disaster of skeptical women finding new ways to practice their craft. And new places. And eschewing the old ones.

The gist of the complaints that occur whenever a woman says that she’ll be sitting out something skeptical (event, product, forum, et cetera) to make a point (which, by the way, is perfectly rational) include:

  • She is being divisive! (She, by the way, is not.) If we don’t stand together, we’ll all fall apart!
  • She’s just looking for something to complain about.
  • She should expect these things to happen.
  • Assume she’s lying unless she provides proof.
  • I’m getting awfully tired of always hearing about women’s perspectives all the time.
  • Feminism is unscientific and out of place in skepticism.
  • She should focus on things that really matter.
  • And she’s being so divisive!

Well, color me cognitively dissonant!

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