Skip to content

On Skeptical Sexism and Comfort Levels

Earlier this week, Penn Jillette posted a link to this essay by Mallorie Nasrallah on his Twitter account, concerning her experience as a woman in the skeptical community. To sum it up, she’s never felt mistreated because of her gender, and she doesn’t see what all the fuss over sexism is about.

So, let me say one thing right away: If she hasn’t experienced sexism, that’s great! We need more women who can say the same. And if she’d left it at that, I’d have no complaint. Unfortunately, she follows it up with an absurd overgeneralization: because she’s never experienced sexist treatment, that must mean that no one else has either. Observe:

As I’ve gotten older these subcultures have become more vocal about wanting to include more women, the discussion has become “how can we make the community more welcoming to women”. As a woman who has been here all along this is distressing to me, I love you guys for who you are… You have never been anything but awesome and welcoming. Who made you think you weren’t?

Well, that would be the women who haven’t had “awesome and welcoming” experiences from the skeptical community. The most unfortunate recent example was this story of a 15-year-old girl who posted a picture of herself on Reddit proudly holding a book she got for Christmas, and received a deluge of vulgar sexual comments and rape threats that left her shaken and frightened. (Although, as Azkyroth pointed out, Nasrallah was one of the commenters saying that by making a mildly risque comment herself, the girl invited everything that followed – which gives you a good idea of the perspective she’s coming from.)

More recently I have noticed a trend among men in my communities, you seem to have been told that you’re awful and need to change. Again, apparently because your genitals imbues you with an inescapable assholism…

I have no idea who she thinks is saying this. Despite being a man myself, I’ve never gotten the impression that anyone thinks I’m an awful person just because of my genitals. I have heard plenty of justified criticism not of people’s gender, but of their behavior: the attitude of sexist entitlement some men have which presumes that they have the absolute right to approach, speak to, and hit on women in any time, place or manner they choose. There are too many misogynists who take the stance that any criticism of a man’s behavior equates to hatred of all men; it’s disappointing to see a woman buying in to the same flawed and sexist logic.

Nasrallah’s focus on “filthy jokes” makes it seem as if the worst thing women in the skeptical community ever experience is a bit of crude language. In fact, it’s women being pestered by strangers, subjected to sexual attention even after they’ve made it clear that it’s unwelcome. It’s women being repeatedly left out of most-influential lists, or when they do appear, being praised only for their attractiveness. It’s men who ignore, dismiss, or shout down women on panels and other public events. It’s pseudoscientific defenses of how men are “naturally” skeptical and logical and women are “naturally” emotional and credulous. It’s online communities where women can’t mention their gender without being subject to leering, harassment, and sexual threats. Much progress has been made on all these fronts, but all these things have happened and are still happening, and Nasrallah doesn’t appear to be aware of that. Is it possible that because she personally hasn’t experienced sexism, she’s unaware of what forms it usually takes?

Keep joking with me, keeping being open and awesome and curious and funny, keep trying to fuck me, because I cant think of any reason why I would rather fuck someone else, we are after all human.

I said that Nasrallah doesn’t seem to understand what the issues facing women are, but I take that back; she clearly does understand at least some of them, as evidenced by this statement. And that, in turn, makes it seem as if her focus on dirty jokes was a deliberate effort to diminish the more serious concerns. In effect, she’s saying that only her comfort level matters, not anyone else’s: that she’s OK with receiving sexual propositions, and therefore all women should expect to get them, whether they welcome them or not. Far worse, she urges men who act in this way to “don’t change” and “don’t ever stop”, which presumably applies even if those women ask them to.

What it really comes down to is this: Mallorie Nasrallah feels welcome in the skeptical community, but she doesn’t care whether the same is true for other women. She’s not concerned about people whose beliefs or desires differ from her own, as evidenced by her flippant statement, “If your jokes or teasing manner offend some people, so the fuck what?”

That’s the root of the argument here. It’s not between men on one side and women on the other; it’s between people who want every skeptic to feel welcome in the skeptical community, and people who don’t care about that.

This isn’t about “respecting” everyone’s beliefs or giving them a pass from criticism. We skeptics are a noisy and contentious lot, and whenever we get together, there’s bound to be vigorous debate amongst us. If anyone expects their ideas to go unchallenged, then this isn’t the place for them. But people should have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be taken seriously and be valued for their contributions, not just treated as eye candy or potential sex partners. One particular woman may not have any problems with this, but she doesn’t speak for all women, and given the gender disparities within skepticism, the larger community of women is clearly voting with their feet. We’d be wise to listen to the concerns of the majority, rather than an unrepresentative few who insist that everything is just fine.



Up Next
By pulling her pants down and defacing Clyfford Still’s painting 1957-J No. 2 (PH-401) (shown above, from 1957) last week at The Clyfford Still Museum, Carmen Lucette Tisch stumbled drunkenly […]