What if everyone did that?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few days about sexual harassment at atheist conferences such as TAM, of the issue of unrelenting bullying of those, especially women, who speak out against it, and the vast room for improvement in how conference organizers discourage harassment and handle complaints.

Ophelia Benson picked apart this article by Dr. Marty Klein ludicrously titled, “Sexual Harassment or Unwanted Sexual Attention?” I eagerly await the rest of his series: “Rape, or just Unwanted Sexual Penetration?” “Robbery? Or Just Unwanted Gift-Giving?”  “Kidnapping, or Unwanted Field Trip?”

Attention is such an adorable euphemism for behavior, eh? It would be wrong to police another person’s attention, so let’s be honest: if it were just attention, no one else would know about it, and so no one would have a problem with it.

Dr. Disingenuous even used this euphemism to engage in a novel form of slut-shaming, saying “For someone who didn’t want one kind of attention, this woman has certainly managed to get plenty of another kind of attention.” For someone who didn’t want an entire burrito forced down her gullet, she sure manages to eat many other kinds of food.

He then goes on to mansplain to the ladies that once upon a time (but never today, hence the history lesson), “In the Bad Old Days,” -yes, he really wrote that -“people—men—with institutional power (professors, bosses, doctors) used sex as a bargaining chip.”

Whoa. Really? Tell me more about those awful days when men would coerce women into submitting to “unwanted sexual attention!”  I know nothing of this mysterious concept of history.    There are no women alive today who lived through that time, but the good news is we “can see it in the show Mad Men.” Tell me more, kind sir!

These three women were the last ever to experience sexual harassment. No one took it seriously then, either.  


Ophelia does a great job tearing down this dude and illustrating how he had to lie in order to make his point, changing many key facts to better fit his narrative and merging together several different women’s stories in one big pile of straw.

I want to look at what would happen if we made the mistake of entertaining his theory of sexual harassment, or worse, of implementing it as conference policy.  And to do that, we have to be clear what we’re really talking about.

What we’re talking about when we say sexual harassment is unwanted sexual behavior.    Talking to me, following me, propositioning me, leaving a business card for a threesome – these are all behaviors.

They are behaviors that That Guy knows would be unwanted by 99% of the propositionees.  We can reasonably infer this from the fact that the business card couple hightailed it out of the area before their mark could read it and react, and the fact that Elevator Guy waited until Rebecca was alone with him in a locked metal box to bring up coffee.

And it’s behavior that – thankfully – most men and women at atheist conventions choose not to engage in, because we’re fucking adults and don’t want to harass anyone.  Most people take great pains to make sure that strangers don’t feel harassed by them.  It’s just what you do, if you care about other people.

Little things: we look away when if a stranger we’ve been absent-mindedly staring at makes eye contact; we say, “excuse me,” even if only to ask where the bathroom is to acknowledge that we are interrupting their separate, private life.

You don’t go up to a perfect stranger in a restaurant and shout, “Tell me where the toilets are, bitch!”  You don’t stand near them, staring menacingly, and then follow them to the bathroom.  You don’t ask if they’d like to come with you and have sex in the bathroom.  And  you don’t then say, oh, well how could I have known they wouldn’t want to be shouted at or followed or called a name or propositioned? I’m not a mind reader!

So let me reiterate: this does not apply for most atheist men or women.  You’re not That Guy.    That Guy trawls through conferences making as many unwanted sexual advances as possible because hey, you never know; it’s a numbers game, right?  That Guy defends his behavior saying, “Hey, I’m not a mind-reader,” but “reads minds” well enough to know to leave the area before the mark turns over the card.  That Guy thinks that he’s entitled to a freebee catcall for every new woman he meets, because how was he supposed to know that particular woman didn’t want to be catcalled by him at that particular time and day?  Geez, it’s not like he’s talked to them!

You don’t even know That Guy.  But it’s time we all speak up to let That Guy, whomever he is, know that we’re watching, and we’re pissed.

So you can see whence my fury at the apologism in this article and  in some of the comments to Ophelia’s post.

But fury is bad for my blood pressure, so let me try to illustrate what’s so profoundly wrong about this model of sexual harassment with a story.

When I was 8, my family took me to Yosemite.

Look at all the pretty flowers!  I shrieked immediately upon climbing down from the back seat of the gray minivan that had carted me to school and soccer practice so many mundane times. My dad secured the strap of my big floppy sunhat around my oblong cheeks, my face half grin, half effusive description of the surrounding area.  Those rocks look awesome I wanna climb them why is that water orange how far until the waterfall?  

My mom slathered me with a cold, wet handful of sunblock, despite my insistence that, Mom, P___ burns; I tan.  P___ is my brother.  It’s true; he does burn.  I tan.  But my protestations went unheeded.  As soon as I could wrench free of their wretched paternalistic concern for my well-being that oppressed me so, I dashed over to the flowers and picked the first tulip I saw, a garish yellow one with a phototropic swagger.

My dad pulled me aside.  Yessenia, please don’t pick any more flowers.

Why not? 

He answered, Take only pictures; leave only footprints.

What does that mean?  I asked.

He replied, It means that you can enjoy a place, but you have to leave it like you found it.  Then other people can enjoy it too.

But it’s just one flower!

Look around.  How many people do you see?

After a quick survey of the surrounding area, I replied, Maybe…15.

What if they all picked one flower each? 

They won’t.

But what if they did?

Then there wouldn’t be as many flowers.  Maybe even no flowers.

So aren’t you grateful that they left the flowers for you to enjoy?

Let’s assume every man person is entitled to one free instance of unwanted sexual attention for every new woman person he meets, unless and until that person unequivocally states that such “attention” is unwanted.  Let’s assume that each conference attendee acted upon this privilege, subjecting every person they met to unwanted sexual advances just once, stopping immediately (though why my saying I don’t want it yesterday means I necessarily don’t want your sexual attention today isn’t explained.  What are they, mind readers?).

Let’s say you, the reader, goes to this conference.

What do you think it would be like? Would being subjected to a hundred instances of “unwanted sexual attention” from one person be that different, much less objectively worse, from being subjected to a hundred instances from a hundred random men?

At the end of the day, wouldn’t you still be sick of saying no?

Is it really reasonable to say the first constitutes sexual harassment, but the second is just stupid ladies not knowing how good they have it?

Aren’t you grateful that other people leave you be to enjoy the conference?  Shouldn’t we let strangers alone to enjoy the conference, too?

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Yessenia is a graduate student studying to be a speech therapist with an emphasis on traumatic brain injuries. She spends far too much time correcting the wrong people on the internet, lifting heavy things and training her cats. She's a proud internet atheist and trolls only for the greater good.


  1. June 18, 2012 at 11:55 am —

    Elyse also has an article about this today over on Skepchick, since it seems to be modeled after her. The original article is atrocious and Psychology Today should be ashamed to publish such apologia.

  2. June 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm —

    I love the analogy to picking flowers. I’ll have to remember that one.

  3. July 7, 2012 at 1:44 pm —

    It seems to me that sexual propositions are like advertising. Advertisers know that you don’t want to see their ad or buy their product, at least 99% of the time, but they still post their billboards, send you their flyers, and interrupt your broadcasts. And as with flower picking, one instance is a nuisance, but cumulatively it’s obnoxious. Most people don’t like advertising, but it’s the cost of living in a free society. If you want to control speech, fine, but you, of all people, would definitely stand to lose in a place where society, rather than individuals, decides what people are allowed to say.

    • July 7, 2012 at 3:09 pm —

      So, your theory is that my choice is either sexual harassment or totalitarian dystopia.

      Yet, you get to traipse through life unencumbered by repeated sexual propositions from men.

      Why don’t I get the same courtesy? Because inevitably, fascism? Logic fail.

    • July 7, 2012 at 4:30 pm —

      It seems to me that sexual propositions are like advertising.


      Most people don’t like advertising, but it’s the cost of living in a free society.

      Are you saying China is a free society? Advertising doesn’t just happen in “free societies.’

      Your analogy is a fail on so many levels.

      • July 7, 2012 at 6:08 pm —

        I didn’t even consider that. Who knew that pervasive sexual harassment of women was a necessary and sufficient precondition of living in and a hallmark of a free society?

        Or is the argument really that women don’t get to be free, and the best we can hope for is that men are free enough to harass us?

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