What does sexism and harassment feel like to you?

I’m a guy who “gets” nasty threats from haters. I receive anti-atheist threats and icky comments, I receive a LOT of nasty stuff from climate science denialists (and that often comes along with bogus threats of law suits), I receive nasty emails and tweets from the sexist and racist SlymePitters and those folks seem to spend more time than is healthy for them making Greg-hating memes and videos and comments on web sites I would not normally visit.

So, I receive nasty horrid verbal attacks from people who hate me and what I stand for, but do I get these nasty horrid verbal attacks in the way that, for example, Rebecca Watson or Amy Roth or Jen McRight get them?

No, I don’t. I don’t really feel like I am at much risk of being physically attacked or raped, although I do not regard physical threats as unimportant. It is just that I am a very large, muscular man with martial arts training who never goes anywhere without my pit bull, and I always carry a gun. I am also famous for kicking ass, generally. Nobody will attack me. Also, even though men are in fact raped now and then (I myself was sexually assaulted a couple times as a teenager, by women) it is a much more likely thing to happen to a woman and the stakes are different. So really, I’m not worried.

Also, I have received a steady trickle of threatening missive from creationists for longer than most of my colleagues in skepticism even knew such a thing was possible. My first threatening notes were on Compuserve in the 1980s, the first act of violence perpetrated against me in person because of my politics not carried out by a police officer was probably in about 1986, the first letter I ever got (that’s like email but on paper) threatening me with death or dismemberment was in 1998 or so. So when the Slime Pitters or their kind, or the regulars over on Whats Up With That blog, take my comments out of context and attempt to bludgeon me with them, lie about what I’ve said or done, or threaten to kill me with their favorite Glock, it is something I’m a little used to.

For various reasons, then, while I do receive these nasty notes and threats and am the subject of harassment now and then, there are a few reasons why it might bother me less than it would bother some others. And all that is context for what I am about to say to you.

Here’s the thing. If you see any of the notes that climate scientists get, or that the Skepchicks or various female bloggers get, and you are a typical person with any degree of empathy at all, you would probably see it as a bad thing and you would understand how receiving such a note might be difficult. But really, you might also very easily write it off as “nothing but trolls” or you might figure that anyone who gets into the business of taking a sociopolitical stand should expect this treatment and while it is not good and while you don’t want to blame the victim, you might figure that it is not really all that bad after all.

And you would be a little bit right, but you would be mostly wrong. Let me help you to be mostly right instead.

The Skepchicks, to take one example, or high profile climate scientists like Michael Mann, to take another, receive an order or two magnitude more of this crap than I do. This does not make it easier for them, it makes it harder. And, threats that involve highly violent sexualized language and rape threats are some large factor worse for the Skepchicks and other woman than anything I get. So, when I, a guy who receives these things, sees what happens to them, I have to adjust how bad it is for me by a considerable amount in order to know what it is like for them, so I can potentially get what it is all about, and it is still only a guess. On the other hand, when YOU, assuming for the moment that you are a person who does not receive these threats, sees examples of the obnoxious tweets, threatening emails, discovers that there are entire web pages and twitter accounts created just to have a place to put awful comments about one person, or hears about some hateful person showing up at a conference someone is at with a t-shirt designed to do one thing only … to make that person feel bad … you have to multiply your experience of zero by some large number in order to be able to get it.

Problem is, zero times some number, any number, turns out to be zero. I don’t know why they invented arithmetic with this highly inconvenient flaw, but they did. So, the thing is, maybe you can’t really know what it is like to be Amy Roth. Or even me.

Well, there probably is a way, and the truth is that if you are one of the haters, you are going to figure out a way to deny the damage you and your friends do, and if you dislike the whole hate people who stand up for feminism or science or who speak out against sexism or racism, etc. thing, then you will reach into your own experience and find something that is not zero that you can multiply by some number to reach a rough idea of what it is like.

vreify, at Teen Skepchicks, has written a blog post following up on one written several days ago by Rebecca Watson, in which she notes that these things, the threats and harassment, probably turn people away from the skeptics movement, people who should not be turned away. That is probably true, and that is probably why the slime pitters and other haters do this. Not because they don’t like skepticism. To the extent that they have a clue as to what skepticism is, they probably support it. They just want this community to be more like themselves, to be less inclusive of people who make their sexism and racism and other isms uncomfortable. They are children with a clique and they are having a big tantrum at everyone else’s expense. Shame on them.

I don’t like what vreify said at the end of her post:

Yes–sexist behavior is damaging to its targets. But it’s also damaging to the community. If skeptics want to quibble about old pictures of the Loch Ness monster, it doesn’t really bother me. No harm done, even if we’re not focusing on issues that I care about more. But if skeptics want to vehemently hate women who are making their minds and voices heard–honestly? It makes me think about getting outta here.

I don’t like that because I don’t want to see more people driven out of the skeptics movement, especially younger folks and especially women.

There is a solution to all of this, not a grand fix it all solution, but a smaller, doable one that will make a difference, even if it does not repair all the damage and stop all the haters. But I will not say what it is out loud. Let me know if you want to know what it is.

I may or may not have exaggerated about the pit bull, the gun, and the marshal arts. I have been going to the gym a lot lately though, so watch out!

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Pointing and laughing works. Ridicule is hard for the haters to absorb in any reasonable quantities.

When I screw up, my friends add it to the list of my previous screw ups and point those out when I get too pedantic. Not on the same level as the hate mail R. Watson gets but that is why ridicule needs many consistent, repeated applications.

My name is Paul Susac, and I am a sexist.

Oh yeah, and a racist. That too.

Here’s the thing. I’m a privileged white male, and I while I count myself as a minority (atheist) it is an invisible minority, so while I get pissed off about religious privileged it is easy for me to forget about my white male privilege.

But there it is, whether I’m noticing it or not.

When I was a kid, my hippy parents moved to Mexico for a lot of bad reasons. At various times, my family was stranded and in danger. EVERY time that happened, Mexican families took us in, took care of us and put us back on our feet. After coming back to the US, I got a college education, and learned a lot about social sciences and privilege.

All this experience and training DID NOT stop me from being afraid of Mexicans when I, later in life, moved from an all-white community to a mixed Hispanic neighborhood. Do you get that? I owe my life to Mexican strangers, and I still managed to fear them as different and “other.”

Talk about unconscious irrational psychological processes!

Same story with women of course. I know that I’m privileged as a male. I know that I never need fear rape, I don’t need to worry about the neighbors singling me out as a whore if I bring a lady over, and I don’t need to fear being cheated by mechanics when my car breaks down. These systemic examples of privilege are pretty clear to me, when I bother to think about them, which is not that often. After all, I’m busy going through my day. I have other things to think about. Pay wise, I work in a female-dominated profession, so I’m VERY interested in gender-based pay parity. I make a woman’s wage, and I can tell you it ain’t easy!

But things get a little trickier here, and mostly it’s because of sex. As a younger man, I lived through the experience of being in a constant state of rut. I mean constant. A good day was one where I got laid, because that meant I could think straight, and a great day was one where I got laid twice. This sort of hormonal cognitive impairment often resulted in a LOT of social awkward ness from me, because I was so over-stimulated by my own incessant lust, that I would frequently respond to my own internal cues instead of attending to the cues of the women around me. Then, when I got rejected, I would experience this as disempowering. From my perspective it seemed that women had all the power. After all, I wanted them, and they didn’t want me.

This was actually some pretty distorted thinking. In spite of my “testosterone poisoning” I had a pretty successful sex life (in retrospect), but it never felt like it at the time. Instead, it felt like I was wanting, and women were not interested. This experience of constant rejection was very disempowering for me, and at times I was pretty pissy about it. Just like my experience with the Latino community, I was confusing my irrational fears with reality, and sometimes behaving badly because of it.

But gradually things changed. First off I started learning to actually look at things from the woman’s point of view. As noted there are lots of safety issues that women have that men don’t - not least is that they bear all the risk, cost and opportunity costs of pregnancy – and there is no such thing as 100% effective birth control. Secondly, I started listening to women, especially women who tell me that I don’t listen very well. You know what? I don’t! I’m a pretty introverted guy, and it’s easy for me to get lost in my thoughts and ignore the people around me (it’s a personal quirk of mine). But because I’m not always attentive, it’s easy for me to use my male privilege to steamroll women in conversations.

There is almost an “alpha male primate” quality to it. It feels good when I dominate the conversation. So good that I ignore cues that I’m dominating the conversation. Status stimulates dopamine production, so who knows? maybe it’s a male brain thing. But like so many of my biological urges, I have to take responsibility for my own socialization, and behave politely in the company of others. I have to own the fact that enjoying the company of women includes creating a relaxed friendly environment for everyone involved. This is (when all is said and done) what good manners are all about. To do this, the first step is noticing that I have this tendency to be sexist. So there you go.

My name is Paul Susac, and I am a sexist.

There is a weird other side to this though. I was brought up to respect women. All women. This was actually a disservice that my parents did to me. This is simply because not all women deserve respect. Like men, some women are assholes, and because I was socialized to assume women were to be held harmless, I have definitely had the experience of having women screw me over and disrespect me. So experience has taught me to extend basic respect to all people, and then judge how and if they continue to deserve it, on a case-by-case basis.

So in answer to the basic question – for me, sexism is a thorny issue. Evolutionary theory points out that males and females have very different agendas when it comes to sex, and very different priorities. My experience of feminism in the universities is that evolutionary discussions of the subject are taboo – that there is a fear that speaking of this sexual dimorphism will result in people justifying political inequality. This is a bad strategy – it means that honest conversation is hobbled and that feminism fails to resonate with many people, creating a space that the Rush Limbaughs of the world have been able to exploit successfully. Power and sex go together. Being honestly aware of and respectful of this fact is an important part of the dialogue.

By Paul Susac (not verified) on 05 Nov 2012 #permalink

> "It feels good when I dominate the conversation"

talking uninterrupted at great length is only "dominating the conversation" if you can make people listen

> "My name is Paul Susac, and I am a sexist."

no, dude, you're just a yammerer. enlightenment is demonstrated through a high value-to-word ratio, and the hypothetical intellectual-lefty-chicks you imagine you are impressing, are not likely to take your spew as either original or particularly sincere.

By misanthropope (not verified) on 05 Nov 2012 #permalink

That's funny you'd say that, since this story has actually gotten me a lot of positive feedbback in the past. Apparently not everyone is as jaded and sophisticated as you.

But I shouldn't feed the trolls.

By Paul Susac (not verified) on 05 Nov 2012 #permalink

actually, being a woman, i agree with misanthrope.

OK, fair enough. But let's hear what your expereince is then. The origional question stands. What is your response?

By Paul Susac (not verified) on 06 Nov 2012 #permalink

Paul, I finally got around to reading your comment (it was tl;dr for a while there) and I think it is interesting and reflects the experiences of a lot of men. Worth a careful read.

Thanks Greg!

I really hope that other people contribute their experience to this thread. It's an interesting topic, and I'd hate to be the only one.

By Paul Susac (not verified) on 06 Nov 2012 #permalink

I liked Paul's comment. But I'm wondering why power and sex go together. People with power can grab more of anything, including more sex, but other than that I don't see a natural correlation.

Basic evolutionary psychology. Human beings are more attracted to individuals with high status, and access to ample resources, since this means they have a large parental investment to offer to offspring.

“High status, and access to ample resources” is pretty much the operational definition of political power. The reverse is also true. People who are viewed as sexy (especially by women) tend to get a significant status boost.

Is this the whole picture? Certainly not. The relationship between sex and power is complex and multi-dimensional, but it’s definitely there. It seems to me that it is the abuse of this relationship that defines harassment.

Want antecdotal evidence? Henry Kissinger – that guy was a famously successful ladies man. Was it his looks that got him laid? I don’t think so!

By Paul Susac (not verified) on 06 Nov 2012 #permalink

I've seen Henry Kissinger naked! And photoshopped, so to speak, in the foldout pages of the National Lampoon. That was back in 1973, and I still remember, so perhaps you have a point about Henry...

Gred Laden and Paul Susac, thank you.
You have restored my faith in men--and in all of humankind--for one more day.
I know there are a lot of great men out there who feel the same way but unfortunately many of them do not take the time or make the effort to speak up about it. You might feel like you're merely a drop in the bucket but I assure you, your ripples are being felt.
So truly, THANK YOU. Please keep at it.

As a woman who is currently working (and obtaining a master's degree in) the field of Development Studies, wherein my primary focus is sexual violence and genital mutilation, I have my faith in humanity marred on a daily basis. While I am studying and working with both male and female victims, the latter are overwhelmingly affected more often. With each new case study, I can't help but feel resentment toward "the patriarchy" and the people (who time and time again are predominantly men) who proliferate its ideals and whose actions range from mildly frustrating to downright gut-wrenchingly abominable.

I try not to let it bring me down too much--I know there is a certain degree of emotional detachment I must have if I want to make it in this field and truly enact change--but it wears on a person after a while.

So here's where I say, to borrow from Paul: "My name is Monika, and I am a sexist".
I try my damndest not to be because it is a quality I very much dislike about myself, but I know that I am affected by all of the things I see every day, from the hyper objectification of women in the media to the encounters I have with rape victims.

I don't hate men. In fact, I absolutely love them. Men have always been my kindest friends, my most passionate lovers, my strongest pillars of support, and my most constructive critics. I can't imagine my life without all of the beautiful (both inside and out) men in my life. That being said, it is EXTREMELY difficult not harbor at least some resentment toward the general "man" when you witness attack after attack after attack on women.

Yes, I know men are attacked too, by other men and by women, and I know that women also attack women, but the man-on-woman attacks, whether they be verbal/written or physical, far outweigh any of the others. That is just the way it is. And after a while, after one has repeatedly seen and heard correctly that "the bad guys are men", "the bad guys are men", "the bad guys are men", one cannot help but start to think, even if incorrectly, that "men are the bad guys". It's called conditioning and every human being falls victim to it--myself included--even if he/she knows better.

Don't get me wrong, I am in no way saying what Rebecca Watson experienced is on par with *actual* rape or genital mutilation or the likes--threatening to do something is, of course, not the same as actually doing it--but the principles behind it are the same. (I don't know Rebecca personally but I would venture to say that she feels the same way and shame on Mr. Dawkins for insinuating otherwise. I'm truly disappointed in him, as he has been such an inspiration to me.)

I understand what it's like to have my personal beliefs and values challenged; it can be extremely frustrating and elicit varying degrees of emotional response. I know how it feels to be downright infuriated as a result of an argument. I cannot, however, fathom how threatening or wishing harm to someone's personal well-being is in any way a productive or acceptable response. It might be one's freedom to speak thusly but when said freedoms encroach upon and contradict the freedoms of others (such as the freedom to live free from harassment, etc.), the "it's my right" assertion becomes invalid. Those who spout threats and claim it is their right to do so simply lack any other form of argument and cannot add anything of any real substance to the given matter at hand. It is a cop-out for the mentally incapable (and/or the lazy), plain and simple.

So please, everyone, if you can't say something nice, don't say it at all. Disagreeing and making valid arguments is one thing, but threatening or wishing harm on someone's well-being (even if those threats are allegedly "hollow") is another thing entirely; the latter is simply displaying your idiocy and bringing everyone down with you. Your intimidation tactics and your 'trolling' might be getting attention now but it will fade soon enough, so I suggest finding more productive ways to occupy your time and efforts.

Men, stop giving other men a bad name.
Women, the same goes for you.
Trolls, whoever you are, no one is impressed. I hope you all get raped and die in a fire.
(Sorry, I couldn't help myself. I'm being facetious, of course.)

((Sorry for the novelette. I've been writing term papers for the past two weeks and I guess I'm still in that mode.))

Have you see this:


I do not know who that is, but if he is typical of the guys you are talking about then I think you were too kind. This certainly is a man who has a brain that was damaged by testosterone! And then, later, by a lot of drugs. I hope not a woman's brain to start with, though.

Your use of italics and other typography has enraged this man. Also, he stutters uncontrollably whenever his words get anywhere near Rebecca Watson's name.

He does point out that you spelled Marshal wrong. But he also believes that you were not joking about multiplying things by zero.

Going to take shower now.

By Vikki Frederick (not verified) on 08 Nov 2012 #permalink

Monica thanks for the comment. Maybe you should be a blogger! (And Paul)

Haha. No, I've not seen it, nor will I. Don't know who that is.

Interesting to hear about the stuttering. That must have been a little funny. I had noticed that most people stutter around Rebecca, something about her aura!

I already got tipped off on the spelling error. If I had zero nickels for every spelling error I'd have a lot of spelling errors!

He also claimed your reference to the attack dog was a direct threat to him.

By Vikki Frederick (not verified) on 08 Nov 2012 #permalink

Fuck u all

it's different for different people. when i was young sexism and harrasment were overall more confronting. not by much, bad habits die slowly. since i allways sympathised with feminism i hardly had a need to call : i am a sexist.

ok i am human and male, and thus sexist at least sometimes, i tend not to even make friends with women, and perhaps that is sexist, only the attitudes around me i allways perceived as way more sexist, even in many women.

accepting their secondary, passive and subservient attitudes and the whole programming of their daughters to be next in life (emotional victim).

nevertheles at any time and point male were worse in attitudes. in specific they are usually if not allways control freaks. (woman can also)

my favoured and probably sometimes faint or ineffective trick, is in cases were the authority on any in the dispute is raised, project and assume a thorough knowledge and intuitive superiority in the women involved (quite justifiedly)as compared to the man.(1)

it has great effects, if the man remotely care, most surely do 'with rebbeca close', they invariably wisely tolerate the implications (their opinion is comparatively needless, insignifcant and unjustified) or enter some shocked state, hoovering between perplexion and consense.

commonly also it gives way to repeats of the male ignorance, at least then such shows to anyone paying attention (so far usually not the concerned woman but that is ofcourse hard to judge).

the opposite is also true, for no gold i would enter a relation with the usual woman i get to know inside such a thing (a relation). i blame it on precarity and a rather total lack of opportunity for the most, not in the least because the cultural factors in childraising and education.

the better notion is that with racism like probably all people of good intent, i also noticed how deeply entrenched that is,
especially when meeting groups of migrant youth wandering aimless in deserted areas i seriously felt fear when i both did not want that, and actually had no real need since i allways enjoyed good relations with the like groups and have experienced substantially more violence and threats by whites.

so i tried to work at that prejudice, also because it annoyed me more about my own judgement than the whole sexist thing. the good news is to an extent it worked,
i advise anyone try it,

martial arts helped against sexism (minimising fear it minimises the fear to, if even softly, confront. even if you don't "kick ass")

(1) there are a few , all to true , arguments for this, woman "think better, understand quicker, consider emotional aspects, talk about things and people better" eg.

So, only the bad ones join the movement? [rhetorical question]

But I generally agree with your argument and I’ve frequently deplored the character-assassination and vituperative language, and worse, that seems “to go with the territory” of questioning “conventional wisdom”. You really “had me” at least sympathizing with your presentation – right up until you asserted that the only reason for Harriet Hall’s t-shirt was to make some “person feel bad” which has to take the cake for making a mountain out of a mole-hill. Tends to raise a question of two about how many other holes there might be in the rest of the argument.

But that case is, I think, the tip of the iceberg which seems to consist of a rather remarkable blindness to the possibility that FTB/Skepchick/AtheismPlus/GregLaden might actually be wrong on a point or two. For instance, PZ Myers made a great show of opening the doors to his place to discuss the question “why do you despise feminism?”. Yet when a SlymePitter shows up – Skep Tickle – with a quite reasonable comment, the horde descends on her like a phalanx of T-cells ready to isolate some gram-negative bacterium. The upshot of which was PZ banning her – “with extreme prejudice”, without so much as a reference to her comments – simply on the basis that she is a slymepitter – and one who hasn’t posted much there either so she can’t have been that badly tainted yet. Not something that adds much lustre to PZ’s reputation as a skeptic – or as an honest broker.

In addition, there is Ophelia Benson’s tweeted claim that “connecting the word ‘feminism’ with the word ‘virulent’ … is misogyny”. Yet she seems remarkably loath to consider, for one example of several, evidence such as the female protesters at the University of Toronto who attempted to harass those who wished to hear a speaker on men’s rights – which led to the “doxing” of several of the women responsible for virtually the same reason – harassment – that you’ve doxed Mykeru.

And then there’s Sally Strange who concedes that “the few isolated good points that MRAs have are indeed good points” yet turns around and repudiates that position when pressed. And PZ with his suggestion that of those who criticize feminism, virtually all “everyone of them has the name Marc Lepine”. That isn’t rationality and skepticism but demagoguery and dogma speaking.

Methinks there’s some rather selective and quite problematic blindness from your neck of the woods which, if it doesn’t justify all of the criticisms from the Pit it certainly underwrites a lot of it. You guys and gals all might want to consider that you’ve got a log, a beam, or two in your own eyes before waving a knife about in an effort to exise a mote or two in your brothers’ and sisters’. That there are whackos on both sides of this divide should not lead the saner ones on each to the conclusion that the other side consists solely of those whackos.

By Steersman (not verified) on 23 Dec 2012 #permalink