A slight detour from the usual topics, this angry rant by Phil Plait caught much of my attention. In short, the story is this: A woman is in a hotel elevator with a man, it is late at night. He attended her talk earlier and expresses his admiration together with an invitation to coffee at his hotel room. She declines.
End of story – you’d think. Except that said woman made a video post about it in which she remarked how uncomfortable it made her feel. In a comment to that, Richard Dawkins essentially tells her that she’s overreacting and there are real sexual assaults on this planet and we’d better worry about those.
Phil’s reaction is hostile to the point of stupidity. Among other things, he misrepresents Dawkins reaction and the comments he invites are… frightening. Count the number of times the word “rape” is used in the comments. Then come back to the original story which is about a guy inviting a woman for coffee in a hotel elevator.
And that is where I’d like to jump in. I consider it frightening how easy women apparently get uncomfortable, and how quickly people assume that a horrible crime is in the air. I’d like you to pause for a moment and ask yourself what kind of assumptions must be at work here in order for those links to appear to us so readily.
I am also speaking as someone who has been accused of sexual harrassment himself. Fortunately for me, there were several friends of mine present who knew me better, including one who is trained as a moderator. The actual situation was that I had a good time with a woman and some of the teasings we exchanged were misunderstood by outside observers. When she left I was confronted with accusations of being pushy and not accepting a woman’s “no”. I guess context does make all the difference. The woman has since become my girlfriend, just in case you wanted to chime in that maybe I was the one misunderstanding the situation.
So back to the case described by Rebecca Watson. Apparently, being alone with a man in an elevator late at night made her uncomfortable, especially as he had invited her to his room.
But this is not a political correctness blog. I would like to examine the event and the outcry and show the assumptions at work her.
The very first assumption was made by Rebecca, and led to her being uncomfortable. The assumption was that she was in a potentially problematic situation. That breaks down into two parts:
- Something else than or in addition to the verbalised offer of coffee was actually intended by the man making the offer (namely: Sex)
- For some reason, saying “no” does not conclude the situation
There is no indication of evidence for either of these assumptions from the event itself, as far as I know. In fact, according to her version, he asked quite nicely, even added “don’t get this wrong” and in fact everything I know about what went down indicates that he really just wanted to talk some more. She talks about being creeped out by being sexualized, but I wonder if she’s not the one doing that.
No, I do believe that Richard Dawkins had the right answer: If someone inviting you very nicely makes you freak out, then the problem is with you, not them.
But the blogosphere ate it up. Dawkins response was ripped to pieces, misquoted and misunderstood, and suddenly the talk was all about sexual harrassment, sexual assault and rape. Note that even Rebecca does not indicate that she was afraid of anything, merely that it creeps her out, and she links that to being sexualized, not to being threatened.
So where does all this aggressive talk come from? Well, apparently there is another assumption at work here, that I can not possibly express any more blatant than commentator Cretoro:
It certainly is true that the majority of men would rape a woman if given the chance
Actually no, it isn’t. It does not even have much evidence going for it. There’s a read about the “typical rapist” over at The False Rape Society and interviews with rapists indicate a few groups of typical reasons. The “I tried to chat up a stranger and she wasn’t interested” group is suspiciously absent from that list. Men just don’t go around raping at every opportunity. In fact, if you check out the official US government numbers on crimes, you realize two interesting things that go against current propaganda:
One, the number of rapes hasn’t gone up. In fact, it’s about 25% lower in 2008 than it was in 1990 (the beginning and end dates in the tables).
Two, while 30 in 100,000 is still a lot, the only crime less common is murder. While less is always better, running this numbers means an individual woman has a statistical 0.03% chance per year of being raped. So, people, statistically speaking, Rebeccas chance of being raped by that guy in that elevator on that day was what? One in a million? Taking the profile into account, probably a lot less.
But that is where assumptions come in again. Or, in this case, biology. No, not the sexual kind. The survival-instinct kind. As humans, we have a tendency for false positives. It’s what throws off our ability at risk assessment as anyone who’s ever worked in security knows. Low-probability high-risk events don’t parse very well in our built-in danger sense. We dramatically over-estimate them. Which is biologically justified. If you are in the african wilderness, mistaking that harmless sound in the bushes for a predator will make you panic and run and cost you some sweat and fear. But mistaking that predator sneaking through the bushes for harmless sounds will result in you being lunch. So evolutionary, those of us who made less false negative and more false positive mistakes survived over those who made them the other way around.
Which means we easily feel uncomfortable or even panic in situations where that’s not appropriate, because mistaken discomfort is preferable over mistaken comfort – if you are living in the african wilderness with nothing on your hand that could fend off a tiger.
Which few of us do, these days. It might be high time to re-examine our assumptions and instincts and check who is to blame for our feelings. All too often, we confuse occasion with cause. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the occasion for World War I to start, but history shows us there were a great number of actual causes, and if the assassination hadn’t happened, some other event would have very likely triggered the war.
And in Rebeccas case, as much as she tells the guy who invited her to coffee to not do that, I’d like to tell her to not do that kind of counter-sexualizing, either. If you consider an invitation for coffee and talk a sexualizing act, then maybe the problem isn’t with the guy asking, but with you? Not everything we guys do always has to do with sex, and treating us like that is one thing: gender-based discrimination.