Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Females, Womyn, Dicks, and SERAM

There is a lot of buzz going around in atheist cyberspace right now regarding the South East Regional Atheist Meet (SERAM) and sexism. There was an incident during one of the panel discussions, and attendee Sharon Moss wrote this guest post about it on the Blag Hag. I was also an attendee, and I was present during the incident. I'd like to blog a response to Sharon's post from my point of view (I'm not going to rehash the story here, but rather quote snippets from the aforementioned post; it is not my intention to take anything out of context. Please use the link above and read the entire post, and if you find that I have misrepresented anything, please feel free to mention it in the comments). The subject was women feeling uncomfortable in atheist groups because men incessantly hit on them.

First, the panelists grabbed a theme that had been floating around all weekend: that men hitting on women is just biological (therefore excusable), making it sound like a woman in that kind of situation should just STFU and get over it.

I did not get the impression that the panel had come to this conclusion at all. In fact, one of my favorite quotes came from a young man on the panel who said that men in atheist groups should take Phil Plait's advice and "just don't be a dick." There were other good points that were mentioned aside from male biology, such as the fact that if you meet someone of the opposite sex at an atheist/freethinkers meeting, you know right off the bat that you share one very important point of view (one that is statistically difficult to randomly run into in gen pop). That makes the prospect of finding a date at a meeting enticing. It was also generally agreed upon that men need to dial it back considerably, and stop being so damned creepy. I was enjoying the discussion, and I thought it was on its way to being very productive. Until...
So I wasn’t surprised when the young woman who finally stood up and started challenging the panel snapped.

Okay, now I wouldn't say she snapped. She was frustrated because she felt like her raised hand was being ignored (she was way in the back, but really the panel wasn't paying much attention to the audience in general), but I'd say that claiming that she "snapped" is a little insulting to the woman in question.
Her question focused on the language the panel had been using - “female” instead of “woman,” and pointed out that it made us sound like livestock rather than people.

Okay. Here is where I think I'm going to really piss people off, because I'm going to be honest about what I think of this. First of all, I want to say that I don't feel like the woman should be criticized or shamed for having an emotional response and speaking up. She had every right to raise her hand and let her feelings be known.


The woman's question had nothing to do with the issue being discussed. I honestly was stunned that she even said it, considering that the actual subject of women feeling uncomfortable because of unwanted advances from men in atheist groups is a very real issue that needed to be discussed. Why bring up semantics?

Okay, she was offended. I get that. I'm not angry about that, nor do I think badly of her for being offended. But that does not mean that I have to agree with her, or even respect her reasons for being upset. I should not be expected to automatically respect her views just because she was offended any more than I should be expected to respect a creationist's views because they are offended by evolution in science class.
But did the panel address the question, perhaps looking for the point at which the discussion took on the word “female” so universally? Did they take the opportunity to discuss how things like language can make a group uncomfortable for women, and what we could do to make it better? No!

This is correct; the panel did not dwell on the question. This woman's question was a frivolous semantics issue, and the consensus among the audience was that no one else had an issue with it. It did not need to be given any more time than it was given.
The woman asking the question was viciously torn apart and ridiculed for even bringing it up.

No. No, she wasn't.
First, a combination of panelists and audience members tried to defend themselves by saying that feminists won’t let men use the word “women” off-limits because it has “men” in it. Then a commotion of everyone talking at once, which was cut off by one panelist’s definitive comment: “What do you want us to say, ‘the weaker sex?”

The reality of what happened here was that there was a discussion (yes, the whole "women/womyn" thing was brought up), it became an unorganized murmur among the group, and a guy on the panel made a joke. The words I remember him saying were "Okay, from here on out we'll just say 'the weaker sex.'" It was a joke to point out the fact that people don't refer to us like that anymore, and we needed to move on. I think that moving on with humor was a good tactic; having a sense of humor about potentially caustic subjects helps diffuse the tension. When you can laugh at something, it renders it benign.
She got upset (and who wouldn’t be?)

Me. I wouldn't.
I - a member of the audience, not one of the event organizers - went after her.

This is the only comment in the post that makes me genuinely angry, because it is a lie. Christie Swords, an event organizer, got up and immediately followed the woman to the bathroom to talk to her and see if she was okay. She stayed there with her until the end of the panel discussion. In fact, I had to go in to let her know that she was due to be on stage for her own panel so she would not be late.
...the moderator sort of awkwardly pushed the discussion on to a new topic, with an embarrassed air of “Sorry for the disturbance.”

As he should have. This was not something that needed to derail the conference. The moderator pulled the panel back on topic; that is what moderators are supposed to do.

This is where I stop my commentary because the remainder of Sharon's post is regarding Sean Faircloth's speech on Saturday, and I was not present for that.

There are many people, men and women alike, who were present at the conference and, like me, feel that Sharon's post misrepresents the events and attitude at SERAM. It worries me that the uproar regarding our opinions seems to always come back to the fact that we "didn't respect the offended woman." As a freethinker, I'm quite offended that fellow freethinkers expect me to mindlessly respect someone's actions and emotions when they are directly inverse to my observations and experience.

I want to end this with the statement that I like Jen (the Blag Hag); I don't always agree with her, and that's okay. I like the fact that as skeptics and freethinkers, we are individuals. I won't stop reading her very well written blog just because her stance on feminism is different from mine. The fact that there are differences makes me think, and examine my own opinions and ideas, and that is what I seek. Just because I express a dissenting opinion does not mean that I have lost any respect for her; on the contrary, intellectual debate and discussion helps us grow and learn. That's a positive thing, y'all.

Update: After some conversation with others who were also in attendence and have recently viewed the video from the panel, I feel that I should add that the moderator actually did address the issue, and asked the audience if they felt the use of the term "female" was offensive. Only two women raised their hand. Then he asked the audience if they didn't find it offensive and everyone laughed and agreed that it was not an issue. The woman then asked the moderator whether he was offended when called a "male," to which he replied, "No, because I am a male." That is when the "weaker sex" joke was made and the woman left the room, upset. These things are all clear on the video and audio, which will be released soon.

Update to the update: See new post. My update has some misinformation. Le sigh.


Heath Holden said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks.

The Kludge said...

Well said! And the Sean Faircloth stuff has been retracted, so this addresses the primary issue.