Dear Richard Dawkins: You Do Not Know What It’s Like to Live in Fear

Oh, dear.  Richard Dawkins is having difficulty understanding why being invited to coffee in a hotel room at 4 in the morning by a strange man can be traumatic for a woman. And, upon realizing he’d begun digging himself a hole, proceeded to rent a backhoe.

A great many people, women who live with the reality that women are the overwhelming majority of the ones who suffer sexual assault and the men who understand that reality, have taken Richard to task.  Most have done a finer job of it, but I can’t help but add my voice.  You wanted it explained to you without the use of the word “fuck” every other sentence, and you said you would apologize if we did so.  Let’s see if you’re a man of your word, then, Dear Richard, who I still do love and respect despite this egregious error in judgment, not to mention human understanding.

By virtue of having been born with vaginas, women are under constant threat.  That is true for women in societies where patriarchy reigns, and it is just as true in America, where we’ve slowly and painfully won some degree of equality.  Richard, you seem to believe that an invitation to coffee is not on the same order as having one’s genitals mutilated, and that is true.  What you fail to understand is that this simple invitation could lead to something similar enough, or worse.

When a man approaches a woman, we have no idea of his motives.  It doesn’t matter how nice he is, or how innocent his motives, or how innocuous the question.  Ted Bundy was a very nice man.  His motives seemed completely innocent: he just wanted help with carrying his books, or loading his boat onto a trailer, or whatever other ruse he’d come up with.  And women who fell for it ended up dead.

Richard, this is what you don’t understand: women live under constant threat of rape and murder, and it’s the nice men just as much as the obvious creeps we have to be wary of.  Let me explain to you what goes through my mind when a man I don’t know asks me to join him in some isolated place: I wonder why he wants to get me, a perfect stranger, in a place where he controls my escape routes and there are no witnesses.  And you think I can use words to fend him off.

You may believe women in these situations are overreacting.  The gentleman only invited the lady to coffee, alone, in his hotel room, at four a.m.  In the world you inhabit, if someone asked you to join them for a drink and conversation, that is all it is.  For a woman, there’s every possibility that the man is not interested in coffee and conversation at all, and simply declining the offer puts us at mortal risk.

Here is what can happen with that: I can use words to tell him no, not interested, and he very possibly could go from Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. No-Bitch-Turns-Me-Down.  He could do that in an instant.  The chances of him being one of those men is small, but it’s not non-zero.  It’s not a chance I can ignore.  So while I’m telling him no, not interested, I’m having to think of the worst case scenario, and what I’ll do.  What environmental weapons do I have on me?  What are my chances against his greater strength?  Should I run now, or will facing him down without fear get me out of this situation?  What will I do if the worst happens?  How am I going to survive this encounter?

You think a man can solicit a woman for sex (and asking her to coffee alone in his room in the wee hours is nothing short of that), in an elevator, and all she has to do is say no.  You think she has an escape: press a button to get out.  Here’s a way for you to test whether this theory is plausible: ask one of your body builder friends to get you on an elevator, alone, and attempt to escape him by pressing a button and exiting down a deserted corridor.  See how easily you can break free if he grabs you; see if you can remain conscious if he punches you out.  See if anyone will bother to respond to your screams as you’re dragged down the corridor.  See if anyone bothers to call the police.  Then explain to me just how easily I can escape a potential assailant, and how “zero bad” being solicited for sex in an elevator is.

Maybe you’ll listen to a man who understands:

“Whether or not men can relate to it or believe it or accept it, that is the way it is.  Women, particularly in big cities, live with a constant wariness.  Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don’t experience.  Ask some man you know, ‘When is the last time you were concerned or afraid that another person would harm you?’  Many men cannot recall an incident within years.  Ask a woman the same question and most will give you a recent example or say, ‘Last night,’ ‘Today,’ or even ‘Every day…..’
“It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different – men and women live in different worlds.  I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, and at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

Gavin de Becker spoke for me when he wrote those words.  I read them a few years after I was raped, as I was still trying to find a way in the world between abject terror and dangerous overconfidence.  If you’ve never been victimized in that way, nor at any real risk of ever being sexually harmed, it’s extremely hard to understand the constant fear.  Do you want to know what my first thought is, upon meeting a male stranger?  It’s always, “What are the chances he’ll end up stalking, raping or killing me?”  And that question is asked at every stage of the relationship.  I have many close male friends who would be shocked to know I constantly reassess them for risk.  I can’t trust anymore, Richard, because it was a friend who decided that if I wouldn’t date him, he would break into the house and take what he wanted by force.  It was a friend who refused to hear the word no.  And if I could be victimized by one friend, whatever on earth would lead me to believe any other friend could be trusted to hear my words, much less a stranger?

I won’t even go in to the other bullshit women deal with in our society.  Just read a few headlines.  You’ll notice that we are constantly dealing with men who want to control our reproductive choices, who consider our health and well-being less important than theirs, who seem to believe we are more property than people.  And if we let any of that slide, even the simple things like believing it’s fine for a man to impose himself on a woman in a hotel corridor at four in the morning, then we’ll lose what precious progress we’ve made.

Men need to understand the world women live in.  They need to know what it’s like to go from coasting along without worries to instant fight-or-flight fear with a few seemingly-innocent words from a stranger.  Because until they understand that simple fact of our existence, they won’t understand all of the other subtle ways society conspires to keep women from gaining equal footing with men.

We live in constant fear.  And what right do you have, Richard, to denigrate us for our response to that simply because the situation didn’t lead to harm this time?

Because this is the truth of it: you could so easily not have been talking about Rebecca Watson because she used the example of this man’s 4 a.m. approach as an example of the kinds of things it’s inappropriate for men to do to woman.  You could so easily have been talking about her rape or murder instead.  And then all of these men, such as yourself, who are complaining that she blew a completely harmless situation out of control would be asking how she could have allowed herself to be in such a dangerous situation as being alone with a stranger.

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to explain to women just how silly their fears for their safety are.

You’re a smart man, and an empathetic man, so I think you can understand.  So listen to us.  Read the following posts, and try to comprehend why what you said was so very, egregiously inappropriate.

Blag Hag: Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing.

Butterflies and Wheels: A priest and a rabbi go into an elevator and… and Getting and not getting.

ICBS Everywhere: On Sexism, Objectification, and Power.

Greg Laden’s Blog: Rebecca Watson, Barbara Drescher and the Elevator Guy and Women in Elevators: A Man To Man Talk For The Menz.

Almost Diamonds: Rebecca Watson Sucks at Reading Minds and A Letter to Professor Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault.

Bad Astronomy: Richard Dawkins and male privilege.

Pandagon: Because of The Implication.

Skepchick: The Privilege Delusion.

Bug Girl’s Blog: A letter to Richard Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault.  This one shows rather nicely how well words work to prevent sexual assault, i.e., they usually don’t.

This post on Shapely Prose from 2009 captures a woman’s reality perfectly, and I wish I had written it: Guest Blogger Starling: Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced. Via this excellent post, via Jen.

For those who think it’s enough to say no, and that no means no, and that men will understand a good, firm no, see Yes Means Yes: Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer.

And I know you’ve read these posts at Pharyngula, because you stuffed your foot into your mouth there, but I place them here for curious readers and men who need the example of a guy who gets it: Always name names!, The Decent Human Beings’ Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences, and Oh, no, not again…once more unto the breach

If I’ve missed anything (and I’m certain I have), my readers can catch us up in the links.

A note to mansplainers and men who refuse to get it (and the few women who are either hopelessly naive or willfully blind): I may or may not moderate this thread, and I have absolutely no problem publicly shaming.  Do not insult the victims of sexual assault by telling us how most men aren’t rapists, and how we don’t have to fear these little situations.  Because of you, I’m turning anonymous commenting off for an undetermined period of time, so that you won’t be free to spout your nonsense without attaching your name to it.  This means assault survivors who don’t want their status broadcast won’t be able to add their voices, and I’m sorry for that.  They should be able to speak safely.  But I refuse to let cowards spew abuse without fear of repercussion on this of all threads.

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Hypatia Day

Hypatia of Alexandria

So I gets this message from Facebook, y’see – my Pharyngulite friend Cameron Cole inviting me to an event called Hypatia Day.  Brilliant!  A day for remembering one of the most remarkable women in history.  We need more of those.  And it’s worth punking off the Dojo till tomorrow for this.

This post is for those who just went, “Hypatia who?”  And for those who just went, “Hypatia – woo-hoo!”

I first got to know Hypatia whilst reading a book called Greek Society.  I’d been quite used to history being full of men, men, and more men.  Oh, and did I mention the men?  Sometimes it really did seem like history was his-story, with just the occasional smattering of, “Oh, and there was this cool female poet once – and did we mention these totally awesome men?”  The only ancient women I really knew were ladies like Cleopatra, and the history I’d learned concentrated more on their looks and their effect on men than on their brains.

Then came Greek Society, and this section of four pages talking about a philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.  Four pages, you say.  Big fucking deal.  But in a 223 page book spanning Greek history from Mycenaean civilization to the rise of Rome, four pages dedicated to one woman kinda is.

I’d never heard of her, but by the end of four pages, I was in love with her.  And Mr. Frost didn’t even talk about her that much – he spent a lot of his words setting her in context.  But he described her as having an “extravagant intelligence.”  There she was – mathematician, philosopher, astronomer – blazing like a supernova from those pages.  A woman pursuing the intellect and rationality in a very male world that at the time was beginning its slide into the Dark Ages.

Students came from all over the Hellenistic world to follow her.  Her father, Theon, a mathematician and last director of the magnificent Museion in Alexandria, admitted she overshadowed him.  Together, they wrote commentaries on such works as Ptolomey’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements, works that went on to set the European intellectual world back on fire when they were rediscovered a thousand years later.  Enjoy rational thinking?  Tip a glass to Hypatia:

How important was the survival of Euclid’s Elements to the course of human history?  The Elements was the most influential textbook in history (Boyer, 1991, p.119).  As reformulated by Theon and Hypatia, the Elements became more than just a textbook on geometry.  It became the definitive guide on how to think clearly and reason logically.  The scientists Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all influenced by the Elements.  Newton’s interest in mathematics was awakened when he bought and read a copy of this book (Boyer, 1991, p. 391).  He used the style of the Elements, with formal propositions and rigorous proofs, in his Principia, the book which forms the foundation of modern physics.  All of modern mathematics employs the logical, deductive method that was introduced by the Elements.  In short, modern science and technology rests on the firm foundation laid down by Euclid’s Elements.

Yeah.  She’s all that.

All of her rationality and independence and intellect, not to mention her religious affiliation (i.e., not Christian), led a mob of Christians to murder.  Apparently, she was in the way of their brave new world.  So they stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets, and slashed her to death with pottery shards.  And the darkness got that much darker.  Politics and religion killed one of the most brilliant women in history.  Then they killed the city of Alexandria, its great library, and the intellectual genius of the ancient world.  Okay, so barbarians also had a little something to do with all that chaos and destruction, but still: vast majority of it was down to politics and religion.  Science almost didn’t survive, at least in the West.

But embers still burned, and got fanned to flame during the Renaissance.  Hypatia was so influential that Raphael wanted to put her front and center in his magnificent School of Athens.  Christianity shat on her again, refusing to allow a smart pagan woman murdered by Christians to have a part in a fresco created for the Pope’s personal library.  Raphael sneaked her in there anyway.  And there she is.  Do you see her?  She’s that elegant woman in white down towards the left who seems to stand apart from the tumult, for all she’s smack in the middle of it:

School of Athens

Someday, I really need to read up on her life.  I know so little about her.  But I know she was extraordinary, an incredible woman who took her place beside the leading intellectual lights of her day, and lead many others in her turn.  We owe it to her to tell her story.

I’m glad someone thought to give her this day.

Confessions of a Female Misogynist Vol. 1: So Wrong About Writers

So, ScienceOnline 11 sparked a small revolution.  I first noticed a small rumbling: celebration that over 50% of the participants were women.  Then the rumbling turned into an eruption, as women and allied men started going “Well, then, why are the women so invisible WTF?!”  For a selection of links on that topic, see here.

And then, along comes this study (h/t) showing that while women mix it up, men overwhelmingly read fiction by men.

This has forced me to examine my own history of misogyny.

“But Dana,” you say, “your profile pic is a woman!”

Look, just because I’m female doesn’t mean I can’t have a rather dim view of my own sex.  And I believe I know where it came from: I hate being female.  I’m pretty sure it has to do with the plumbing.  I’m one of those lucky gals whose time of the month feels like – well, I don’t quite know how to describe it.  Put it this way: when I had my first kidney stone, the doc told me the women who’d been through labor and stones said stones were worse.  I figured childbirth must be a cakewalk, then, because the kidney stone wasn’t half as bad as the cramps I dealt with every month.  Three days of crippling misery.  I won’t go into details.  Suffice it to say, it was enough to make anyone loathe being female.  It’s gotten better with age, thankfully, but it’s still an ordeal.

That could be part of what turned me off to the feminine mystique.  Then there was my upbringing.  We had a grand total of three or four girls in my neighborhood.  One of my earliest memories ever is standing at the end of our driveway, holding the handlebar of my trike, watching a solid wall of boys zip by, and wondering where are the girls?!  Then I hopped aboard and joined the melee.  From the age of three on, I spent about 2% of my time playing dress-up with the one worthwhile chick in my neighborhood, and the remaining 98% climbing trees, skinning knees, getting muddy, and playing war games with the guys.  Ever since, the vast majority of my closest friends have had dangly bits.  The guys get me.  We share most of the same interests (excepting sports and dating women).  The girl friends I had were usually tomboys like me, or if they weren’t, they had minds sharp as Toledo steel under the makeup.

So, due in part to the kids I ran with and the evil nature of my lady parts, I tended to neglect the wonders of womankind.  And I ended up rather blinded to the fact that there were, in fact, quite a few women out there kicking arse and taking names.  I’ve got billions of examples of that.  But we’ll start with where I first realized I’d been seriously losing out by neglecting my own gender: science fiction and fantasy.  I had this semi-conscious bias toward male writers for the longest time.  I suppose I was afraid that if I picked up a book written by a chick, it would bore me to death.

Here’s why I should’ve known better: Meredith Ann Pierce.  I picked up Birth of the Firebringer at a bookfair when I was a wee little lass.  To this day, I consider it one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.  Her unicorns weren’t fluffy, sweet creatures with rainbows shining out of their asses.  They were hardcore, utterly realistic, and not soft at all.  And she put them through some serious shit.  If you want to read something mythological yet harrowing, this is one of the first books you should pick up.  I give a lot of lip service to Tolkien, because he was the one who made me get serious about worldbuilding, and Jordan, because he was the one who reignited my love for fantasy when I’d totally lost it.  But Meredith Ann Pierce is responsible for the fact that some of my main characters are also kick-ass unicorns (I shall not lie), and as I write, she’s usually lurking there at the back of my mind somewhere, reminding me to make the fantastic real.  That passage in the wyvern’s cavern?  I can still feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, even taste it – it was probably the first thing I ever read that engaged all of my senses.

And why I never knew it was a trilogy I’ll never know.  I’ve just bought the other two books.  This is turning out to be an expensive post…

Right.  So, when I hit puberty, I entered a bit of a desert – most of the authors I remember reading were guys.  Hardy Boys, y’know.  Okay, some Nancy Drew, too, and of course Agatha Christie.  But most of my great loves were men.  Then I got back into fantasy, and eventually started discovering that women could write some remarkable stuff.

People may scoff at role-playing novels, but damn it, Elaine Cunningham writes some awesome fantasy.  I first got introduced to her via Elfshadow.  Silly-ass name for a book, you might think, and bound to be fluffy, but if you think so, you haven’t read Elaine and you haven’t met Arilyn Moonblade.  Talk about a strong female character.  Ye gods.  She showed me that being female and skinny did not mean automatic wimp.  Not by half.  I still adore those books.  I will always adore those books.  Even the fluffy bits have  a nice, sharp edge.

(Yes, I know – there’s nothing wrong with fluffy and feminine.  But that’s just not how I roll, m’kay?)

I came across Melanie Rawn in the time-honored manner of poor bookstore employees everywhere – I took home a stripped copy of her first Exiles book.  One word: intense.  It’s been many years since I read it, but I still remember being fascinated by the harshness of it.  And the politics are certainly what one might term cut-throat.  Not a gentle read.  And I like that.  I don’t like authors to go easy on their characters or their readers.

I came across Octavia E. Butler because Orson Scott Card couldn’t stop singing her praises in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and since I wanted to write SF, I figured I’d best pick up a copy of Wild Seed.  I did.  And he’s write – few people handle exposition as masterfully as Octavia.  Few authors leave you haunted for so long.  My greatest writing regret to this day is that I didn’t get into Clarion the year she was teaching.

I’ll be honest on this next one: I haven’t got much use for C.J. Cherryh.  I’ve tried to read The Dreaming Tree twice, and only finished it the second time out of sheer stubborn determination.  Not my cup of tea, although I can’t quite pinpoint why.  So when a friend lent me The Paladin, I almost didn’t read it.  But then I did.  And I include it here not just because it’s a good book, but because it has one of my favorite paragraphs of all time: A man got older.  A man got wary of caring for things too deeply.  A man got wiser and ended up on a damn mountain.  A man could die alone up here.  And yes, a female writer could write a male POV.  Who knew, right?  And maybe someday I’ll get over The Dreaming Tree and find out C.J. Cherryh wrote other things I like.

And now, we get to the women who have, more than any others, created worlds that swept me right away.

Connie Willis was another one of those stripped-book discoveries.  I took home Fire Watch.  I didn’t like science fiction much until hers.  I didn’t think women wrote kick-ass science fiction until her.  And how I hated time travel stories until I read hers.  She has, by turns, put me through more laughter, tears, and paradigm-shifting experiences than probably any other author, Neil Gaiman included, sad to say.  She makes me think harder than very nearly any other author I’ve read.  Just don’t ask her to write about Women’s Issues.  You’ll quite possibly regret it.

Speaking of stripped books, that’s how I stumbled upon Patricia A. McKillip.  The Book of Atrix Wolfe was just this slim thing that looked mildly interesting, so I dragged it home.  When I’d finished, I felt as though my soul had just been put through an industrial blender.  I believe I hyperventilated a bit.  My darlings, that ending made me lose my breath in shock.  Not a bad shock, mind you.  One of those mind-blowing, life-affirming, my-gods-the-world’s-a-harsh-barstard-but-so-damned-amazing shocks.  I’d never read another writer who could be so implacable and yet so lyrical.  She’s one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read.  Her words – well, they’re beyond my paltry skill to describe.  They make me think of honey and pearls and all sorts of precious jewels, even while she’s putting her characters through utter hell.  There are few writers in this world with the chops of Patricia A. McKillip.

As for The Book of Atrix Wolfe, the ending still knocks me breathless every time.  Even though I know what’s coming.  That’s the mark of a truly outstanding book, that.

(Note to authors who hate people getting their books for free: it should become clear at this point that giving away a book or two is a good idea.  Just ask my shelves full of Connie Willis and Patricia McKillip and Melanie Rawn, among many others, many of whom probably wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been hooked risk-free first.)

C.S. Friedman, people.  I don’t remember how I came across her.  I read the Cold Fire trilogy, and I will tell you something: no one I’ve read before or since has ever managed to so perfectly pull off an anti-hero.  Ever.  And then, as if it wasn’t enough for her to kick arse at writing fantasy with a little science fiction flavor, I read In Conquest Born and discovered she’s one of the best science fiction authors out there.  I felt bruised and battered and bloodied after the spaceship chase scene.  She’s one of the few people I’ve read who can pull off space flight and make it feel utterly authentic.  And she pulls not one single damned punch.  You won’t catch her giving her characters an easy time of it.  She’s cruel.  I like that in a writer.

Dos mas, and then this unexpectedly long post shall come to an end.

I came across Susanna Clarke by way of Neil Gaiman.  She wrote a short story for the Sandman Book of Dreams called “Stopp’t Clock Yard.”  Neil wrote little introductions for each story.  For this one, he said she writes like an angel, and that this was the only chance he’s ever had to actually read a Sandman story.  He was incorrect in one particular: angels only wish they could write like Susanna Clarke.  It was the only story in that book that read like a real and true Sandman story.  I read it every New Year.  And for years, all I had was that and a handful of other short stories, with only the glimmer of a novel on the horizon, and I suffered.  Oh, how I suffered.  No one else writes like Susanna Clarke.  Then she came out with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which for a time caused this atheist to experience heaven – until I finished the book.  Now I’m suffering again as I wait for the next one.

And, finally, we round out my incomplete pantheon of favorite female SF writers with Lynn Flewelling.  I picked up Luck in the Shadows on a whim, figuring I had nothing to lose.  Besides, I’d read the first paragraph, which meant I’d read the second, and by then putting the book down had become as impossible as splitting an atom by taking a dull knife to it.  I’ve loved a lot of characters in my life, but rarely so much as I’ve loved Alec and Seregil.  And there is no one yet who’s topped her brothel scene.  So for two books, we had rip-roaring action, sheer fantasy fun with some of the greatest characters evah, and for her third book she brings us – politics?  WTF?  Only she’d somehow managed to make politics fascinating.  Not to mention, the introduction to that book still elicits a belly-laugh from everyone I subject to it.  She’s one of those writers who could produce a novelization of the phone book that would be thought-provoking and hilarious.

Before these women, I’d considered writing under initials and hiding the fact I was female.  After them, I decided fuck the initials, and fuck hiding my gender.  Women SF authors kick arse, too, damn it!  And I shall be proud to be one of them.  And all of the silly concerns I had about not being taken seriously because I’m a woman have melted right away.  A bunch of these women rank among the most highly-respected and award-winning authors in the genre.  Being a woman is no problem.  The real requirement is to be a great author, no matter whether your naughty bits dangle or not.  And identifying as a female author doesn’t mean I have to restrict myself to female characters (several of the above have happily written from the POV of male characters as well as female, without apologies or explanations).  It doesn’t mean I have to obsess over hair, clothes and boys.  I can be the author I want to be, without apology or explanation, without hiding behind gender-neutral names and ambiguous bios.

And because of these women, I became less of a misogynist.  Despite my evil uterus.  So, if you’re looking to expand your horizons and make your bookshelves groan a bit more, you could do worse than starting with them.  While you’re at it, expand my horizons and mention your favorites in comments.