“Creepy men are a problem in the atheist community”

Persons who have frequented some areas of the atheist blogosphere in recent months have likely read discussion pertaining to alleged problems which women in the atheist community face — particularly pertaining to conferences which many men attend — that have allegedly lead women (or so they say) to either not attend conferences, local meetings, or otherwise feel unwelcome or threatened. Generally, the problems that have been voiced are ‘certain male speakers at events are dangerous,’ ‘misogyny is rampant in the atheist community,’ and ‘sexual harassment is a problem at atheist conferences.’

Many men, including myself, and the fellow women ‘gender traitors,’ after hearing these claims (in addition to failing to see reason to believe these claims), have expressed skepticism and have argued that there is no good reason to suggest these problems exist nor should they lead women to believe conferences are unsafe environments. Recently, in the midst of a Twitter exchange with Martin Robbins, I attempted to gauge what the problem is before further discussion. I have learned that “creepy men” are at least on part of the problem.

What, you may wonder, as I do, is a ‘creepy man?’ Might this be a man who is unattractive? Might this be someone who lacks ‘proper’ social skills? Might this be someone who fails to gain a ‘seal of approval’ from the women who express discomfort? Might this be someone who fails to conform to social norms and may seem a bit eccentric? Might this be someone who is a ‘risk-taker’ and asks women for dinner (or something else) only to be rejected? Shame on the creepy men.

To perhaps be more charitable, ‘creepy men’ are men who lead women to believe that they are being harassed or are actually harassing women. Instances of harassment at atheist conferences, I would imagine, should be easily identifiable and actionable. Such instances may involve repeated propositions for sexual behavior, inappropriate sexual conduct such as unwarranted sexual attention or touching, instances in which consent is obviously lacking or audibly withheld (no thanks, please stop, please leave, I’m not interested!).

Why, though, should gender and a descriptive word ‘creepy’ — perhaps based on appearance and perhaps based on something else — be brought into the discussion? Is this necessary? I think not. If behaviors are the problem and, more specifically, harassment is a problem, discussion of specific behaviors and specific incidents which would warrant dismissal from a conference (not just leading women to feel uncomfortable) should be the focus. Someone — a ‘creepy man’ — whom you consider unattractive or do not want to spend time with is not a sufficient reason for claiming that there is a ‘problem’ in the atheist community.

Might there be instances of actionable harassment at conferences or local atheist meetings? Sure. Of course. I’ll grant that they happen. Do these incidents, though, constitute enough reason for people to even consider a ‘problem’ that is widespread in the community and large enough to talk about (as opposed to isolated incidents which would be expected in any population)? Are these ‘creepy men’ not only ‘creepy,’ but engaging in harassment of women at atheist conferences?

Most people who attend atheist conferences and events, and not only men, are generally, I would uncontroversially state, decent human beings who do not engage in harassment. Throughout my experience, and considering the events I have attended, I have not heard of more than three incidents which would lead someone to be dismissed from a conference. If there were a real problem, I would think, instances of harassment would be [more] commonplace…but they just simply are not.

I would also expect proponents of the idea there is a ‘problem of harassment’ in the atheist community to be blogging about these incidents and sounding the claxons just as they do when trolls make comments they don’t like on Youtube, Twitter, and various parts of the internet. I suppose, though, that I am just ‘blinded by male privilege’ while, coincidentally, the data attesting to the ‘problem’ is mysteriously missing. Perhaps it is just a conspiracy of the patriarchy?

If you — someone who does not want to be in the presence of men whom you consider ‘creepy’ — want conferences free of ‘creepy men,’ feel free to have your own conferences. Make your registration processes extremely thorough. Require prospective men who wish to attend to send photographs, proof of income, videos of them in social situations, and whatever else you would require so that you can bar ‘creepy men’ from conferences. After all, we know that you detest objectification of women, but objectification of men is permissible.

On behalf of creepy men, if I can somehow speak on behalf of them, I am truly sorry that some women attending atheist conferences happen to encounter men who do not acquire their seal of approval. Clearly, from this day on, we need a new paradigm in registration for conferences because, after all, we want to be accepting and welcoming of more people…and never mind what men happen to think, especially old white men, because we need a ‘new wave of atheism.’ Bring it on.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.