A friend asked me on twitter why women often feel uncomfortable at purely atheist/secular conferences, and then remembered the Richard Dawkins – Rebecca Watson ‘elevatorgate’ from 2011.
At an atheist conference, Watson had been talking about how shitty it is that women get sexualised at conferences like this. She was then hit on by a guy in the lift, in a situation that could very easily gone from bad to worse. After speaking up about this, she received a lot of criticism from Dawkins in particular, who wrote a satirical letter to a Muslim woman undergoing FGM (female genital mutilation), comparing her plight to Watson’s experience.
The problem with this is similar to the problem with the phrase ‘you shouldn’t be sad, because someone, somewhere has it worse than you’. Under this logic, nobody should ever be happy, because someone will always have it better than you. It’s comlpletely ridiculous. Obviously, on the grand scale of things, being sexualised and hit on in an enclosed space by a stranger is nowhere near as horrible an experience as FGM. But it doesn’t invalidate the experience, as Dawkins claimed it did. It’s worth noting that in this case, a man was telling a woman that she was overreacting when she was faced with an uncomfortable and overly-sexualised situation. This situation could have very easily not ended as it did, things could have gotten a lot worse, and Watson very easily could have been sexually assaulted. Dawkins trivialised a situation which he will probably never experience, but one which Watson will most likely experience a hundred more times.
This is just one example of why women are often apprehensive about atheist/secular conferences, even those aimed specifically at women. My experience was not on the scale of Watson’s, but again, it’s still valid. And while I received little negative backlash for feeling this way at the conference itself, the world of twitter took care of that afterwards. People who weren’t even at the conference. And whose only knowledge of the conference was through the MRA blogger (I refuse to plug him, also he’s a male supremacist dick), were telling me that I was overreacting, that I was being ridiculous, who couldn’t understand why I was upset. And because they couldn’t understand it, it was invalidated.
If women are going to continue to be involved in the secular movements, which is necessary for our empowerment, these spaces need to be safe, both from physical threats and belittlement of valid experiences.