Open Letter to Richard Dawkins

Recently, an atheist (who happens to be female) had an incident in an elevator, and calmly asked dudes in general not to do this.

Richard Dawkins put in his two cents, making light of women who have been victims of anything less than genital mutilation.

Stephanie, over at Almost Diamonds has put up a letter expressing to RD how victims of sexual assault feel.

Full text of letter behind the jump.

Dear Dick:

At your request, we write to you to tell you what it is that you do not understand about elevators, invitations, and sexual assault. Who are we, and why are we in any position to tell you anything? We are atheists and skeptics, but more relevantly, we are victims of sexual assault.

There are two important things to note about Rebecca Watson’s experience. The first is that she had spent much of her evening telling the people around her, “Please don’t hit on me,” and finished by saying she was done talking and wanted sleep. This was ignored by the man now widely referred to as Elevator Guy. (Yes, it’s been established that he was in a position to hear her. Yes, it’s been established that he followed her out of the space in which she’d been saying this and got on the elevator with her.)

She had said, by unequivocal implication, “No.” He ignored this and did what he wanted to. This is important.

The second important thing to know is that her response was to say publicly, one more time, “Please don’t do that. It makes me uncomfortable.” That’s it. That was her entire response to Elevator Guy beyond telling him she wouldn’t go to his room.

For that response, Rebecca came under considerable fire. This is also important.

The entire drama-filled discussion came about because Rebecca asserted her right and the right of other women to say, “No,” and be heard. It happened because she asserted that men, as well as women, have a role to play in maintaining that right.

Then you spoke. Then you, widely regarded as one of atheism’s leaders, one of the Four Horsemen, decided you needed to say something about this.

You didn’t have to do that. If you felt, as your comments seem to indicate, that too much attention was being paid to this event, you could have simply declined to add yours.

However, that wasn’t what you did. Instead, you said that Rebecca, who was voicing our concerns, was thereby telling other women with other concerns that they were whining. Or perhaps that the rest of us who supported Rebecca when she was criticized for expressing her preferences were accusing these women of whining.

Even if you had stopped there, this would merit an apology. Not only has Rebecca spoken out loudly against female genital mutilation (drawing the ire of those who told her she wasn’t paying enough attention to the boys) and other religion-driven wrongs against women and girls, but her demand that women’s self-determination be respected is exactly what needs to spread in order to prevent the ills you mention. If this is an issue you care about, instead of a distraction from Rebecca’s point, you should be thanking her for her work instead of emphasizing the “chick” in the name of her organization, diminishing her stature.

Then, in response to complaints about that, you told us all that what happened to Rebecca–having her clearly and repeatedly expressed preferences about being hit on ignored–was “zero bad.” It should be clear by now why that requires a correction from you. It also calls for another apology, whether or not you knew the facts above when you wrote your comment. If you didn’t know, you weren’t in any state to lend your position and reputation to any characterization of what happened, much less the mischaracterization you used.

That is where you injured us, the victims. You have made one more space blatantly unsafe to us. We don’t mean safe as in free from any kind of sexual interest. We’re not asking for that, and we don’t want it. We mean that you, a leader in our community, made free with a woman’s experience and rewrote it to suit your own ends.

You decided you knew better than she did what had happened, and you were comfortable explaining it to everyone else. That is part of how communities are ruined and ultimately shaped to support sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. That is how offenders operate and how they are excused. That is how the world that hurt us was built. And you have added to that.

That is why you owe us an apology as much as you owe Rebecca. When may we expect it?

Original post and list of signers.

You’ll see my name there.


6 Responses to “Open Letter to Richard Dawkins”

  1. I was reading the very same post, just as the notification from WordPress came that you had a new post up.

    My abuse was violent*, not sexual, so, while I can empathise, I obviously can’t sign it. Thank you very much for signing.

    I can’t believe the number of people who just don’t seem to see the problem, and Dawkins’ attempt to fob it off was sickening, especially considering his oft-stated opinion that ‘we should learn from the feminist community, the value of consciousness-raising’.

    *Not claiming it to be equal, just analogous.

  2. I was unpleasantly, horribly, shocked at the response from Dawkins and the others along the same lines.

    You get so used to being people whose opinions and thoughts matter in the atheist movement, that when you get smacked back into what I think of as “other-space”, it’s doubly shocking. And even MORESO when you calmly explain it, expecting a rational lightbulb moment, and they throw up a big “Fuck you”.

    I have always thought of the atheist movement as a safe place. You and KK and PZ, and many others who get it, who have been accepting, open, supportive, etc. This is the first time that I’ve seriously second guessed my involvement. Not because of the retard in the elevator, but because of the insane and nasty backlash.

  3. If you watched it mainly via Pharyngula, it’s a good bet that most of the real idiots involved there weren’t even part of the movement. Certainly lots of nyms I’ve never seen before. Mostly trolls from MRA forums, I suspect. I hope. Not that there haven’t been a lot who definitely are, too. I think there’s a lot of Dawkins-fanboi element to it as well, mind.

    Dawkins though, was a total shock. I just sat there thinking ‘it’s not him. It can’t be him’. Still doesn’t seem real.

    “This is the first time that I’ve seriously second guessed my involvement.”

    If it makes any difference, you’d really be missed.

  4. I had the same reaction to Dawkins. Still am, honestly.

    You’re a good friend, Daz. And I’m not going anywhere. The Scots stubbornness bred true in my line. ;) Just means we have to keep trying. What was heartening was all of you that do get it, I daresay a larger percentage than might have decades ago.

  5. Ah, but the most famous Scots phrase in the world is a flounce: “cannae tak nae more!”

    “I daresay a larger percentage than might have decades ago.”

    Indeed. Baby steps may be slow, but they do get there.

    Damnit, that simile was way too cutesy for my macho image. I may have to pump some iron or something. Or maybe iron some pumps? Or, indeed, actually catch up with some ironing…

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