Fourteen months ago I called out some of my fellow feminist atheists for the way in which a conversation about sexism was unfolding online. I tackled the subject with a provocative blog post, a radio episode and a few podcast extras. Since then, I’ve seen the conversation evolve. It’s a conversation where a wide array of community members can participate in remedying a pattern of behavior that underlies some fairly disgusting revelations. It’s a conversation where our fellow freethinkers of grand fame or relative obscurity are speaking out, standing up, and taking action.
In my critique, I never doubted that harassment, assaults, and expressions of sexism occurred within our community. I have witnessed it, and the statics alone make incidence probable. At the time however, I feared that broad, nonspecific accusations of sweeping sexism in our community would alienate allies and activists of feminist causes. In fact, I saw these accusations alienating men who vigorously support humanistic and feminist ideals and activism. I worried that vigorous insistence was tending toward the dogmatic, and that shame was being wielded overly broadly at collective groups and not at the offending individuals.
Any number of these things can be stomach-churning for atheists, many of whom associate dogmatism and shame with religious manipulation. Shame for actions not your own is a tool heavily used by religion, and it should hardly be surprising that those who’ve worked hard to escape that particular vicegrip would reject such things out of hand.
I am glad to say that a notable culture shift is occurring (note: not has occurred) that appropriately holds individuals accountable for harassing behavior with clear consequences, and puts positive social pressure on organizations who harbor or endorse harassers, minimizers, and assailants. The courage and frankness of a few are giving voice to many. Many of their stories are still developing, and we must keep close watch on making sure the individuals or organizations culpable take responsibility, and face social consequences for their behavior.
Karen Stollznow, linguist and skeptic author, recently divulgued in the Scientific American Mind blog the years of sexual harassment, retribution, and minimization she suffered at the hands of a colleague and her place of employment. Her harasser was subsequently identified as Center for Inquiry employee Ben Radford.
Following Dr. Stollznow’s piece, Carrie Poppy documented poor treatment during her time as an employee of the James Randi Educational Foundation. She requested that JREF ban Radford from future appearances at their TAM conference due to his treatment of Stollznow, only to have her request dismissed by President D.J. Grothe and summarily denied by the JREF Board. Poppy documented additional unethical behavior by Grothe to the JREF Board, and stated that she was assured by James Randi himself that DJ Grothe would be fired. That never came true. In a move that sickens me, Grothe approached CFI President Ron Lindsay (who himself has been the focus of controversy) to ask that Poppy be removed from speaking and attending the Women in Secularism conference because it might reflect poorly on JREF, especially if Poppy were to cry if the subject of rape arose.
YouTuber and former development director for the Secular Student Alliance Ashley Paramore bravely detailed her experience being harassed and sexually assaulted at TAM 2012. Although she refers to the perpetrator (a casual friend) using a pseudonym, her story powerfully explains supportive moves by fellow conference goers, and the importance of a responsive staff. Unfortunately, Ashley reveals that she may be speaking out now because she no longer works for “Big Atheism.” This speaks to a fear that many have about self-advocacy leading to compromised job opportunities within the movement, as was described by Dr. Stollznow.
Despite the courage of these women and the support they receive from our community, others remain anonymous for fear of retribution or followup harassment from the same community. Clearly we have much to do as activists, humanists, skeptics, and feminists in ensuring that all members of our movement are treated with the dignity and respect that is our right. Names and details, even in preliminary form, are an important step in uncovering and rooting out unacceptable behaviors that hurt us. Fourteen months ago, a dogmatic discussion didn’t sit right with me. What I’ve seen develop since then is a critical mass working with determination to make our movement and communities places of respect and integrity for all members, especially those whose voices have been marginalized.