06 July, 2011

Dear Richard Dawkins: You Do Not Know What It's Like to Live in Fear

Oh, dear.  Richard Dawkins is having difficulty understanding why being invited to coffee in a hotel room at 4 in the morning by a strange man can be traumatic for a woman. And, upon realizing he'd begun digging himself a hole, proceeded to rent a backhoe.

A great many people, women who live with the reality that women are the overwhelming majority of the ones who suffer sexual assault and the men who understand that reality, have taken Richard to task.  Most have done a finer job of it, but I can't help but add my voice.  You wanted it explained to you without the use of the word "fuck" every other sentence, and you said you would apologize if we did so.  Let's see if you're a man of your word, then, Dear Richard, who I still do love and respect despite this egregious error in judgment, not to mention human understanding.

By virtue of having been born with vaginas, women are under constant threat.  That is true for women in societies where patriarchy reigns, and it is just as true in America, where we've slowly and painfully won some degree of equality.  Richard, you seem to believe that an invitation to coffee is not on the same order as having one's genitals mutilated, and that is true.  What you fail to understand is that this simple invitation could lead to something similar enough, or worse.

When a man approaches a woman, we have no idea of his motives.  It doesn't matter how nice he is, or how innocent his motives, or how innocuous the question.  Ted Bundy was a very nice man.  His motives seemed completely innocent: he just wanted help with carrying his books, or loading his boat onto a trailer, or whatever other ruse he'd come up with.  And women who fell for it ended up dead.

Richard, this is what you don't understand: women live under constant threat of rape and murder, and it's the nice men just as much as the obvious creeps we have to be wary of.  Let me explain to you what goes through my mind when a man I don't know asks me to join him in some isolated place: I wonder why he wants to get me, a perfect stranger, in a place where he controls my escape routes and there are no witnesses.  And you think I can use words to fend him off.

You may believe women in these situations are overreacting.  The gentleman only invited the lady to coffee, alone, in his hotel room, at four a.m.  In the world you inhabit, if someone asked you to join them for a drink and conversation, that is all it is.  For a woman, there's every possibility that the man is not interested in coffee and conversation at all, and simply declining the offer puts us at mortal risk.

Here is what can happen with that: I can use words to tell him no, not interested, and he very possibly could go from Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. No-Bitch-Turns-Me-Down.  He could do that in an instant.  The chances of him being one of those men is small, but it's not non-zero.  It's not a chance I can ignore.  So while I'm telling him no, not interested, I'm having to think of the worst case scenario, and what I'll do.  What environmental weapons do I have on me?  What are my chances against his greater strength?  Should I run now, or will facing him down without fear get me out of this situation?  What will I do if the worst happens?  How am I going to survive this encounter?

You think a man can solicit a woman for sex (and asking her to coffee alone in his room in the wee hours is nothing short of that), in an elevator, and all she has to do is say no.  You think she has an escape: press a button to get out.  Here's a way for you to test whether this theory is plausible: ask one of your body builder friends to get you on an elevator, alone, and attempt to escape him by pressing a button and exiting down a deserted corridor.  See how easily you can break free if he grabs you; see if you can remain conscious if he punches you out.  See if anyone will bother to respond to your screams as you're dragged down the corridor.  See if anyone bothers to call the police.  Then explain to me just how easily I can escape a potential assailant, and how "zero bad" being solicited for sex in an elevator is.

Maybe you'll listen to a man who understands:
"Whether or not men can relate to it or believe it or accept it, that is the way it is.  Women, particularly in big cities, live with a constant wariness.  Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don't experience.  Ask some man you know, 'When is the last time you were concerned or afraid that another person would harm you?'  Many men cannot recall an incident within years.  Ask a woman the same question and most will give you a recent example or say, 'Last night,' 'Today,' or even 'Every day.....'

"It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different - men and women live in different worlds.  I don't remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, and at core, women are afraid men will kill them."
Gavin de Becker spoke for me when he wrote those words.  I read them a few years after I was raped, as I was still trying to find a way in the world between abject terror and dangerous overconfidence.  If you've never been victimized in that way, nor at any real risk of ever being sexually harmed, it's extremely hard to understand the constant fear.  Do you want to know what my first thought is, upon meeting a male stranger?  It's always, "What are the chances he'll end up stalking, raping or killing me?"  And that question is asked at every stage of the relationship.  I have many close male friends who would be shocked to know I constantly reassess them for risk.  I can't trust anymore, Richard, because it was a friend who decided that if I wouldn't date him, he would break into the house and take what he wanted by force.  It was a friend who refused to hear the word no.  And if I could be victimized by one friend, whatever on earth would lead me to believe any other friend could be trusted to hear my words, much less a stranger?

I won't even go in to the other bullshit women deal with in our society.  Just read a few headlines.  You'll notice that we are constantly dealing with men who want to control our reproductive choices, who consider our health and well-being less important than theirs, who seem to believe we are more property than people.  And if we let any of that slide, even the simple things like believing it's fine for a man to impose himself on a woman in a hotel corridor at four in the morning, then we'll lose what precious progress we've made.

Men need to understand the world women live in.  They need to know what it's like to go from coasting along without worries to instant fight-or-flight fear with a few seemingly-innocent words from a stranger.  Because until they understand that simple fact of our existence, they won't understand all of the other subtle ways society conspires to keep women from gaining equal footing with men.

We live in constant fear.  And what right do you have, Richard, to denigrate us for our response to that simply because the situation didn't lead to harm this time?

Because this is the truth of it: you could so easily not have been talking about Rebecca Watson because she used the example of this man's 4 a.m. approach as an example of the kinds of things it's inappropriate for men to do to woman.  You could so easily have been talking about her rape or murder instead.  And then all of these men, such as yourself, who are complaining that she blew a completely harmless situation out of control would be asking how she could have allowed herself to be in such a dangerous situation as being alone with a stranger.

Think about that the next time you're tempted to explain to women just how silly their fears for their safety are.

You're a smart man, and an empathetic man, so I think you can understand.  So listen to us.  Read the following posts, and try to comprehend why what you said was so very, egregiously inappropriate.

Blag Hag: Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing.

Butterflies and Wheels: A priest and a rabbi go into an elevator and… and Getting and not getting.

ICBS Everywhere: On Sexism, Objectification, and Power.

Greg Laden's Blog: Rebecca Watson, Barbara Drescher and the Elevator Guy and Women in Elevators: A Man To Man Talk For The Menz.

Almost Diamonds: Rebecca Watson Sucks at Reading Minds and A Letter to Professor Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault.

Bad Astronomy: Richard Dawkins and male privilege.

Pandagon: Because of The Implication.

Skepchick: The Privilege Delusion.

Bug Girl's Blog: A letter to Richard Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault.  This one shows rather nicely how well words work to prevent sexual assault, i.e., they usually don't.

This post on Shapely Prose from 2009 captures a woman's reality perfectly, and I wish I had written it: Guest Blogger Starling: Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced. Via this excellent post, via Jen.

For those who think it's enough to say no, and that no means no, and that men will understand a good, firm no, see Yes Means Yes: Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer.

And I know you've read these posts at Pharyngula, because you stuffed your foot into your mouth there, but I place them here for curious readers and men who need the example of a guy who gets it: Always name names!, The Decent Human Beings' Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences, and Oh, no, not again…once more unto the breach

If I've missed anything (and I'm certain I have), my readers can catch us up in the links.

A note to mansplainers and men who refuse to get it (and the few women who are either hopelessly naive or willfully blind): I may or may not moderate this thread, and I have absolutely no problem publicly shaming.  Do not insult the victims of sexual assault by telling us how most men aren't rapists, and how we don't have to fear these little situations.  Because of you, I'm turning anonymous commenting off for an undetermined period of time, so that you won't be free to spout your nonsense without attaching your name to it.  This means assault survivors who don't want their status broadcast won't be able to add their voices, and I'm sorry for that.  They should be able to speak safely.  But I refuse to let cowards spew abuse without fear of repercussion on this of all threads.


Suzanne said...

thank you.

Blake Stacey said...

Excellent essay.

Autumn Rook said...

This was a fantastic response to Dawkins. I'm one of the lucky women who has not been assaulted by a man, but that doesn't mean I haven't feared for my life in many different situations. I've been cornered by a homeless man who demanded I let him pump my gas and then pay him for it. I stood my ground and he almost got maced before he backed off. His exact words to me were, "Are you one of those feminist bitches who think they're too good for men?" I cannot tell you how often I've had to quickly assess my environment to make sure I had an escape route or a weapon to hand, just in case. I hope Dawkins listens to the backlash he's receiving, because he has completely destroyed my respect for him at this point.

Thank you again for your fantastic essay. I'll be linking it on facebook.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points well made.

The first link to Greg Laden's blog has some extra text on the end of the address.

Improbable Joe said...

This whole nasty episode has been a net positive. Women have been clued into the fact that atheist/skeptic conventions aren't safe from sexist assholes, so they can be more proactive in protecting themselves. Lots of sexist fools have exposed themselves, which makes it a little easier for women to protect themselves. Possibly Dawkins will learn from this and aim his considerable influence in a positive direction on this issue.

And, selfishly, some good was done because I got to find blogs like yours. Selfish or not, it makes the time I've invested on the issue worth it to me even if I can't convince one of my brothers to be less of a moron.

iota said...

First, should "but it's not non-zero" be "but it's not zero" or do I need three more pots of coffee before reading?

Second, (just for info) I am a white male nearing sixty-five.

Third, HotDam! You can write. I hope Dawkins sees this.

Fourth, I cannot understand why this topic is so difficult. Most men have a mother, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter. Why do we continue to be such ignorant, contemptuous assholes in regard to the safety and equality of our women? And the event that sparked this kerfluffle happened at a convention of very liberal people. WTF?

Fifth, even the most well intentioned man cannot see things as a woman does. It might help if women would talk to their male family and friends when they say or do things they should not. But maybe not.

Sixth, I agree that this will be a good thing in the end. And good on Rebecca Watson for speaking up.

Seventh, your rock article rock. I will shut up now with apologies for the long comment.

Susan Silberstein said...

A couple of days ago, while wasting time at the computer, I hear a noise I don't recognize that might be inside the house. My first reaction is to assess which of the objects on my desk can be used as a weapon. How many men react that way?

Maitri said...

I'm not going to pretend I'm above being admired (and even hit on) by men. If that were the case, I wouldn't be married today. It is, however, the way in which a man does it that determines my reaction. If he invites me up to his room for coffee (?!) at 4AM while standing in an elevator, I'm going to think "Ok, what sharp objects do I have on me to use on this guy in case he goes psycho on me in this enclosed space?" If he, and this happened to me recently, drives up to me while I'm walking in a sparsely-populated parking lot and asks if I am married, I show him my ring and tell him to please leave me alone and he yells, "All you bitches think you're so uppity!" before driving off, I'm going to take down his license plate number and report him to the cops.

If, like my now husband, the guy took an extra interest in me, we nerd-bonded together for a bit, he asked me out for dinner and then asked me out, that's actually pretty cool. My then-date treated me like a human, above all, and I him. Many men, especially hyper-educated ones, lack social graces and are being innocent about their clumsiness, but that's not then my burden to excuse this behavior. Again, I think Rebecca's use of the phrase "being sexualized" was strong as a descriptor of that particular circumstance in the elevator, but many men don't understand the extremely fine line we walk everyday in the world, the one between being a professional colleague or just another human and a female of the species ripe for onslaught, if not total assault.

Space, that in which you walk so freely, give us it. That's all we ask.