Skepticism and Secularism Have a Serious Sexual Harassment Problem

Not OK

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Most mainstream media stories about women in the growing skeptic/secularist/science education movement (the boundaries between the three are pretty porous) usually begin with articles and videos asking, "Where are all the women?" But people within these circles know that there are actually a lot of female leaders, and the real woman problem is sexual harassment.

As Rebecca Watson, a major writer and speaker on the skeptic/atheist circuit wrote in Slate last year, the amount of sexual harassment aimed at women over even the tiniest suggestions of how to make the movement more female-friendly is absolutely stunning. Watson herself has been subject to two years of nonstop online harassment because she made a video where she casually suggested that cornering women in elevators in the middle of the night is not best practice for making them feel safe. When the Center for Inquiry, a major free-thought organization, held a conference titled Women in Secularism (full disclosure: I was a speaker at this conference), angry anti-feminists in the movement deluged the Twitter hashtag for the conference with so much misogynist garbage that it became unreadable. While sexual harassment is used as a weapon to strip women of their dignity and sense of safety in nearly all corners of society, for some reason it's particularly bad when it comes to the skeptic/secularist community. 

Now linguist and author Karen Stollznow, writing for a blog at Scientific American, has come out with her harrowing tale of allegedly being stalked and abused for four years by a relatively prominent male skeptic, one who has unsurprisingly written a lot of articles claiming that feminists generally, and not just in the skeptic community, exaggerate the incidence of sexual harassment and assault. Here's Stollznow:

From late 2009 onwards I made repeated requests for his personal communication to cease but these were ignored. He began manipulating the boundaries by contacting me on the pretext of it being work-related. Then came the quid pro quo harassment. He would find opportunities for me within the company and recommend me to television producers, but only if I was nicer to him. One day the company [that he worked for] offered me an honorary position that I’d worked hard for, but he warned me that he had the power to thwart that offer. I threatened to complain to his employer, but he bragged that another woman had accused him of sexual harassment previously and her complaints were ignored. According to him, she had been declared “batshit crazy”. Then, he saw me at conferences and took every opportunity to place me in a vulnerable position. This is where the psychological abuse turned physical and he sexually assaulted me on several occasions.

She eventually cracked and, trying to retain her position with the company he worked for, complained to his superiors about this ongoing abuse. Five months later, she received a letter that "acknowledged the guilt of this individual.” The company felt that suspending him temporarily while he was on vacation was sufficient discipline. She, on the other hand, has lost all ability to work with this company, not just because she understandably wants to keep her distance, but because of a culture of "closing ranks like good ol' boys."

This sort of thing isn't just a problem because women deserve better than this, though that alone is reason enough for leaders in the skeptic community to do more to combat sexual harassment within their ranks. This is also a problem because this movement, despite what the haters may think, needs women. Feminism and secularism are tightly entwined movements, as they share a common foe: the religious right. To deny the importance of feminism means ignoring some of the biggest fights to defend science and religious freedom, such as the battle over reproductive rights. Additionally, this kind of tolerance for sexual harassment undermines larger efforts to get more women into the sciences. Interest in skepticism and science education is a gateway for a lot of women into careers in science, but if that gateway is littered with trolls shouting sexual abuse at you, a lot of women are understandably going to turn away. (Though maybe the humanities could benefit.)

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