Sexism survived the rapture

I mentioned before that last weekend I was going to a post-Rapture party/conference thrown by local atheists, and I did, and it had its definite moments. I wasn’t there on Rapture day itself (I was at Maker Faire then), but the crowd the following Sunday was undiminished, and the talks were generally good (a low point for me was Greta Christina’s New Atheist rant about the wonders of getting angry, a talk that ran too long, thus preventing anyone from asking questions afterwards or being able to challenge any of the ways she characterized critics of this angry style).

David Eller opened the day with a talk making several important points about the way religious ideas propagate themselves, and the ways atheism and atheists can combat those ideas. “People don’t get argued into religion,” he pointed out, so why expect that we can argue them out of it? “Don’t refute” religion, he summarized, “uproot!” Uproot the cultural structures that reinforce religion’s role, by pervading people’s experience through an inundation equal to the existing inundation of religious imagery and ideas. I thought he distracted a bit from this message by overemphasizing the role of widely-used Biblical names, Biblical phrases and metaphors, religious language like saying “bless you,” and other phenomena which have religious origins so vitiated by time and secular use as to be irrelevant to the propagation of religion.

But the really distracting move was when, as he described it in a subsequent apology, “just as I ask atheists to stop ‘speaking Christian,’ … I had as a male unreflectively ‘spoken male.'”

I’ll let the excellent Jenny McCreight explain:

During a talk on how we need to make the atheist movement less about arguing and more of a community, David Eller brought up bloggers and videobloggers as an example of a good aspect of community. With photos of popular atheist videobloggers Laci Green and Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss) on the screen, he quipped that it was so helpful that they’re “pretty” and that we have a “pretty blonde Romanian” on our side. Without any mention of their intellect, wit, or content.

…When there was time for Q&A, I purposefully raised my hand. Eventually the mic made it back to me, and I said (paraphrased to the best of my ability):

“I have a brief comment. If you want to make the atheist movement more social, we have to be aware of the concerns of minorities, not insinuating they’re only helpful because they’re pretty and blonde. There are plenty of pretty blondes people can watch – these people are popular because they’re intelligent and witty.”

…if you are using popular videobloggers as examples because you think they’re intelligent, don’t reduce them to their looks. It blows my mind people need this spelled out for them. It perpetuates the idea that we’re just keeping atheist women around as trophies or booth babes, not because we appreciate their input. Sure, Criss is attractive – but that is irrelevant and inappropriate for a talk on community building at a conference.

Three, the atheist community doesn’t exactly have a problem recruiting men. Nor would I stoop to suggesting we need to recruit hot guys to lure in the ladies to solve our gender problem. It’s insulting, and not to mention heteronormative.

Yep, someone giving a talk on how to improve our community was horrendously out of touch with one of the most important and commonly discussed issues in said community. The irony has not escaped me.

Rebecca Watson was speaking immediately after Eller, and also offered an antidote by abandoning her scheduled talk about grassroots skepticism, and talking instead about the religious right and its war on women and women’s bodies, explicitly noting that she was doing so in response to Eller’s comment and his insufficient initial response.

I take Eller at his word that he sees the error of his ways, and I doubt that he’ll make the same mistake in the future. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying sexism is gone. And the righteous and justified anger at Eller over this is unlikely to root out the sexism in the crowd that day, nor in the wider audience seeing this discussion on blogs today.

The irony is, as Eller later realized, that the problem is exactly the same as what he was describing with religion. Sexism is so ingrained in our culture, and probably so deeply wired into our brains, that simply calling it out, or even getting angry at it, is not going to replace it. It needs not just to be refuted (as McCreight did ably that day and on her blog), but uprooted and replaced by something else.

That replacement cannot simply be a message of pure gender-neutrality; men and women are different in obvious and interesting ways, and there’s no point ignoring those differences. McCreight herself made brilliant use of women’s unique anatomy with her “Boobquake” protest, a smart and funny bit of political theater that drew lots of attention to astonishingly sexist claims by an Iranian cleric. Along the way, McCreight and the boobquakers got lots of media attention, and she got to explain the protest’s goals at ABC News (filed, oddly, under “technology”). It was, in many ways, a success, and an argument for the claim that the differences between the sexes might be a great weapon against sexism.

But because of culture-wide sexism, including the sexism in skeptical and atheist communities who invite her to speak, she’s turning her back on that protest. In a second post on the post-Rapture conference, she writes:

I lost track of the number of boob jokes I received this weekend, thanks to mentioning boobquake on my talk on edginess (at the request of the event organizer [on Saturday]).

Which is why I’m done speaking about boobquake at conferences. I’ve already said no to groups who wanted me to talk about it, and suggested another topic. I think we can learn interesting things from what happened, but I’m just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment. I can only tolerate so much.

What started as a protest against men who blamed women’s revealing clothing for natural disasters should never have been turned into “a green light for sexual harassment.” Anyone who thinks it does is missing the point. And the success of boobquake could point the way to a related protest of such sexism. McCreight and other women shouldn’t feel like they can’t use their bodies as weapons against sexism for fear of encouraging sexism among the more numbskulled in their audience.

Which raises the question: did sexism win, or was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society’s sexism? Do the vloggers cited in the talk do better than vloggers who are less attractive on camera, and if so, is that a case of sexism that need to be rooted out, or is there a way to use that sexism against itself?

Now there’s no reason that atheist or skeptical communities should be less sexist than any other community (i.e., it’s not generally a theological or pseudoscientific claim), except that these groups tend to be highly educated and politically liberal, and that means they should be aware of and concerned about these sorts of implicit and pervasive societal biases. And it should be a concern because these communities skew significantly male, and getting a healthier gender balance is crucial to the long-term success of either movement, which goal cannot be accomplished if women feel afraid of being women at atheist or skeptical events.

So I’m glad that this instance of sexism was called out quickly, and I’m glad that it was followed by a talk pointing out that a major focus of the religious right is to create and perpetuate this sort of sexism. I’m glad that this conversation is continuing online, with folks like PZ Myers carrying it wider. But what’s next? With what do we inundate society to wash away and replace that sexism? I know the long form of the argument, but what’s the short version?


  1. #1 Justin Casey
    May 24, 2011

    Listen to the audio and read the transcript of what was said here:

  2. #2 Dunc
    May 24, 2011

    I lost track of the number of boob jokes I received this weekend […] I’m just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment

    Nobody could have predicted that! Except, of course, for everyone who did, and got shouted down as killjoys.

    was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society’s sexism?

    A thousand times yes. You can’t solve a problem using the same thinking which created it.

  3. #3 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    The frat boy climate of organized “skepticism” has been commented on for quite a while. Dare I link to a thoughtful article that talks about the subject? Yes.

    It sounds like a lot of extremely silly stuff was said by many who believe they own reason and truth. Which has been pretty much the history of “skepticism”-new atheism.

  4. #4 SimonC
    May 24, 2011

    On this one I agree with you. Those thoughts should have remained thoughts only. Thinking that someone is pretty is fine but using it to bolster an idea is just foolish. ‘I’m prettier, so I win’ only works in beauty pageants.

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    May 24, 2011

    Boobquake was not only not doomed, it wasn’t remotely a failure in this respect.

  6. #6 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie Z. have you considered that “Brainquake” was probably less likely to be misconstrued, as “Boobquake” so clearly has been?

    What, exactly, did it accomplish for women in Iran?

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    May 24, 2011

    Anthony, if you’re going to “evaluate” an event, please try to be familiar with it on at least a Wikipedia level:

  8. #8 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie Z. Did you read the next two paragraphs in the Wiki article you just linked to?

    Mottahedeh, an Associate Professor of critical theory, cinema and women’s studies at Duke University, and Bashi, an Iranian studies professor at Rutgers, supported Boobquake’s goals of drawing attention to questions about gender and rights, but were skeptical of its methods.

    Mottahedeh worried that some participants may not “understand that this is about Iran”, a nation in which “women and men are dying for the right to be free, dying for the right to have civil liberties.” Mottahedeh also believed that Boobquake was “playing right into the hands of venues such as Playboy, which I don’t think was at all Jen’s intention.”

    The possibility that Boobquake could be misconstrued or carried a mixed message seems to have occurred to a few other folks as well.

    For example, Beth Mann:

    I appreciate McCreight’s intentions behind this; she meant it as a feminist response to a ridiculous statement. Unfortunately, it seems to be turning into something else, with many men chiming in, with their “show us your tits” camera-ready attitude. Women on parade again … sigh. Since when did we “stick it to the man” by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts? When women burned bras back in the day, there was a statement there, full of boldness and righteous anger. This type of happening feels like feminism lite, “cute” feminism or “male-friendly” feminism.

    Reviewing the hundreds of comments that continue to pour into the Boobquake Facebook page, many women apologetically replied, “Sorry, I don’t have enough cleavage to show” or “I’m as flat as a board … sorry!” A movement that encourages more body issues! Yay for us.

    Someone who’s familiar with the way the boys talk on the blogs couldn’t have predicted the use that “Boobquake” would be put to? Apparently someone other than myself could:

    Says McCreight, wishing to deflect feminist fury:

    “I just want to apologize if this comes off as demeaning toward women. To be honest, it started as silly joke that I hurriedly fired off since I was about to miss the beginning of House. I never thought it would get the attention it did. If I would have known, I would have spent more time being careful about my wording.”

    We’ve all said stupid things on the Internet. But when you say stupid things about encouraging women to protest oppression by capitulating to Dude Nation’s fondest desire, and then blame it on a compulsion to watch a stupid misogynist TV show, all I can say is, ewww.

    Apparently, the person who came up with the idea wasn’t entirely certain about it.

    My question was what it did for women in Iran. You have any indication that it had a positive effect there instead of here on North America?

  9. #9 Stephanie Z
    May 24, 2011

    Oh, right, Anthony. You’re that dick who doesn’t discuss anything, just selectively quotes. Try reading the bits that don’t support what you already think, particularly the links from Wikipedia. It’s all there already.

    And for the “but it could be misconstrued” bullshit: a big, fat, feminist fuck you. Let me know when you find an activity women can participate in, even posting their resumes and CVs, that can’t be misconstrued. Let me know when you find one that’s immune to be treated as an invitation to abuse. Then you might have done enough work to be worth talking to. Until then, you’re just wanking, and I’ll leave you to it.

  10. #10 Stephanie Z
    May 24, 2011

    Josh, I have a response to Anthony in moderation. Feel free to censor the profanity if you feel it’s inappropriate to the situation. I’m sure he’ll puzzle it out.

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    The profanity.

    I can assure you I’ve been called worse than you’re likely to and it won’t impress me nearly as much as evidence that it did anything to improve the lives of women in Iran.

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    May 24, 2011

    Can we kindly take the namecalling and vitriol down a notch?

  13. #13 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie, your reasoning is underwhelming me.

    Did you share similar sentiments with Amanda Marcotte, Twisty, Beth Mann and the other women less than wowed by the idea who I remember reading at the time?

    It’s always so great, seeing people sitting in safety on North America coming to the aid of women in Iran and other places by doing futile, attention getting things that don’t do a damned thing but get them attention. I was commenting on stuff like that well before the one we’re talking about.

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie: I’m not sure how an event premised on women dressing scantily can be said not to have been taking advantage of society’s sexism.

  15. #15 Stephanie Z
    May 24, 2011

    Josh, there is a difference between presenting one’s self as a sexual person and presenting one’s self as an object. There’s been a lot of work done in our society to blur that distinction, but it doesn’t make it less valid.

    Anthony, I already responded to IBTP’s criticism in the post I wrote and linked to. You using a feminist blogger to just restate that criticism without remotely engaging with my response is just gross.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie, who would you suggest I listen to about feminist issues but feminists? A bunch of guys?

    If you had bothered to read the link @13 you would have seen that I wrote the post, I happen to write for that blog most weekends, as I have since 2006.

    Is it a big surprise to you that sexist male low life could be expected to enjoy “Boobquake” for reasons other than its feminist intentions? Here’s what happened in Portland, Maine during a topless walk last year:

    The women, preceded and followed by several hundred boisterous and mostly male onlookers, many of them carrying cameras, stayed on the sidewalk because they hadn’t obtained a demonstration permit to walk in the street. About a thousand people gathered as the march passed through Monument Square, a mix of demonstrators, supporters, onlookers and those just out enjoying a warm and sunny early-spring day…
    … Ty McDowell, who organized the march, said she was “enraged” by the turnout of men attracted to the demonstration. The purpose, she said, was for society to have the same reaction to a woman walking around topless as it does to men without shirts on.

    I’d prefer that the law disallowed anyone appearing in public going shirtless, or that it remain as it is, to allow anyone to. The law should be all or none. And with what I’ve seen on the street, I’m for all shirts. But there was certainly no surprise when several hundred boobs with a penis had that reaction to this event. While I find it impossible to believe that anyone planning that kind of demonstration wouldn’t know that would be the result — especially if they’re familiar with the bar scene in Portland — they certainly shouldn’t expect that a repeat will get a different reaction.

    Oh, right, Anthony. You’re that dick who doesn’t discuss anything, just selectively quotes.

    “Selectively quotes”, well, I know that the normal way people produce supporting evidence for their arguments is a novelty to a surprising number of people on these blogs but that’s the way its done among adults. Though I suppose just venting in vulgar language without any supporting information is more satisfying to the such as who enjoy the wonders of getting angry, it doesn’t seem to result in much sense being made. I’d imagine it’s a lot easier than making an argument, though I wouldn’t know.

    You do, Stephanie Z. realize that you produced “selective links.” OK, you provided ONE link, to support what you said. Though I imagine you weren’t pleased when YOUR LINK produced one of those quotes you so disdain. I suppose you would say I was selectively quoting YOUR CITATION to refute what you said. That’s the thing about citation, you should have read it yourself before you select it to support your argument. Or you might find it doesn’t.

  17. #17 Josh Rosenau
    May 24, 2011

    Stephanie: I don’t dispute the distinction you’re drawing, but I don’t think boobquake was about expressing individual sexuality. It was about presenting … well … boobs.

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