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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It’s hard work pulling off a conference, of any kind. Even the “cushier” conferences for membership groups (like the PYAH–Put Your Acronym Here) have to take into account that people often pay their own way and must be convinced that attending an event will be worth their while. Hence the struggle/search (some PYAHs have an easier time than others) for big names in the field that will draw a crowd (and money), and build/maintain momentum for the conference as a Can’t Miss Event and help propel attendance in subsequent years.

It’s tricky. I get that. I’ve helped with that at a tiny company that put on an annual large event. You want to get the big names, but you also want to get the big new names, and you have to balance what you can charge for things against what you have to pay for people, and it’s a lot to put together. You also want people to get excited about who’s coming to speak, and they’re often the people who’ve generated a buzz in recent times. And we all know what they say about buzz: Buzz means controversy, somewhere, somehow.

OK. So I’m the only one to say it that way. But you know. If people are talking, it’s because they are saying things to each other, about a speaker, about a book, about an interview, about something that gives a lot of people lots to talk about, which has to include disagreement because people only like agreeing out loud for so long. So you get this of-the-moment notable person to come to your event, and everyone is excited, and they all buy the tickets to hear the keynote speech the very first morning. Victory is yours!


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This bonus content post is me participating in the Feminist Friday series hosted by Transatlantic Blonde, co-hosted this week at Circus Queen. Follow the link below to read other bloggers’ entries, from the current and past edition.

True to form, I’m weeks behind everyone else on anything topical, but I finally read the book everyone has been talking about: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Which meant I finally had an opinion on the cover story that Newsweek ran about it that, back in April. Look! Here’s the cover. Note the claim that “Surrender is a feminist dream.”

Here’s the text of the article, “Spanking Goes Mainstream,” by Katie Roiphe.

(Regarding the actual book as a work of fiction, meh. They did the whole domination/rape/romance thing better in the 1980s as costume drama, where you at least got descriptions of fancy dresses and usually learned a little bit about history, too. 50 Shades of Grey is nothing new, and not a particularly interesting example of its genre. But I’m not here to write a book review. Let’s move on to the Skepticism part of the program, in which we examine what profound and well-argued insight compelled Newsweek to put a picture of a pretty naked lady on its cover.)

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Turns out that women can take a joke. Almost all of them (because who wants to speak in absolutes, right?) have a sense of humor, and even most of the ones who don’t can identify a joke on paper and in situ, either by careful (if speedy) grammatical analysis or by gauging the reactions of the people around them. In fact, sometimes women joke with each other, in public, in front of people, even in front of men. There is plenty, plenty of evidence that belies the common complaint that women don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t take a joke. And yet, this unsupported factoid has legs within the skeptical movement, and trots itself out every time a woman complains about a sexist or misogynist joke appearing in the skeptical discourse and asks people to cut it out.

Defensiveness ensues. And accusations, and lots of things, all revolving around the topics of It Is Perfectly Fine to Tell This Joke and I Don’t Really Mean It It’s Just to Be Funny and How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke? Let’s pick these apart one by one.

How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke?
Women can tell that it’s a joke. (See first paragraph.) But pretending that they can’t is a deflection strategy that enables men to criticize women for their behavior instead of taking responsibility for their own. The thing is that the women just don’t think the joke is funny. Their reasons for not thinking a sexist joke is funny include (but are not limited to) that they are hurt or embarrassed by jokes at their expense, that sexist jokes told in an environment of mostly men perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women, and that dismissing a woman as having no sense of humor is just another way to silence her (by shaming her, by inventing a flaw and then criticizing her for having it, usually in front of a group).

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