jump to navigation

On Elevators and Schrödinger 10 Jul 2011

Posted by Jessa in Atheism, Feminism, Skepticism.
add a comment

I’m resurrecting this long-neglected blog by jumping right into the deep end.

If you follow the skeptic/atheist blogs, you probably already know about The Elevator Incident.  While at a conference in Ireland, Rebecca Watson found herself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention while in an elevator at 4 AM.  She talked about it in a vlog post, relevant part transcribed below:

So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel…? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, “I’ve had enough, guys, I’m exhausted, going to bed,” uh, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

Um. Just a word to the wise here, guys: Uhhhh, don’t do that. Um, you know. [laughs] Uh, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

So, yeah. But everybody else seemed to really get it.

And after that, things just seemed to explode.  See here for a fairly exhaustive link farm of the whole debacle.  Basically, a lot of people felt that Rebecca was making a big deal out of nothing, that the guy didn’t mean any harm, etc.  Many others tried to explain, some very politely and with relevant links,  why Elevator Guy’s behavior was inappropriate.

In an ideal world, what followed would have been a back-and-forth conversation until the “no big deal” people at least understood that the situation would make many women uncomfortable, even if they really couldn’t fully grasp why.  What happened instead is that those who were trying to explain Rebecca’s reaction were caricatured as overreacting misandrist wet blankets who think that all men are rapists and who also think that men should never, ever, ever hit on women.

So, even though eleventy-billion electrons have been exchanged over this issue, I’ll try to explain, yet again, why The Elevator Incident was creepy.

First, some background.  One in every 6 women in the US has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (link).  And the unfortunate thing for you good guys out there who would never harm a woman is that the vast majority of the bad guys look exactly the same as you.  Until a woman gets to know you better, she has no idea whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy.  So there will always be a baseline level of wariness at first.  This does not mean that you can never approach a woman you don’t know.  There are ways to approach women in a non-threatening manner (see here for a very good primer), and there are behaviors that will raise mental red flags.

Elevator Guy’s problem is that he raised a lot of red flags.

First, the time and location.  In an elevator at 4AM.  Most women have been taught all of their lives to avoid isolated spaces, especially late at night, in order to reduce the chances of getting sexually assaulted.  Many, many, police department safety tips specifically mention avoiding elevators.  So when a woman finds herself alone in an elevator with a strange man, her guard is higher than normal.  Elevator Guy may have been a perfectly nice guy and not a threat at all, but Rebecca had no way of knowing that at the time.  Remember that, for the most part, dangerous men look exactly the same as non-dangerous men.  And at 4AM, if something had gone wrong, the chances that someone else might be around to stop an assault are pretty much nil.  So, even more wariness.

Second, no prior contact.  Even though he had ample opportunity earlier in the evening, Elevator Guy apparently made no attempt to engage in conversation with Rebecca prior to The Elevator Incident, and took the first opportunity to talk to her to proposition her.  Big red flag.

Third, disregard for her previously-expressed desires.  She had stated earlier in the day that being sexualized made her uncomfortable.  Elevator Guy supposedly heard it, but decided to disregard her stated wishes by propositioning her.  Or, for those who insist that “coffee” really meant coffee (despite the fact that they both just left a place that was serving coffee), he decided to disregard her expressed wish to go to sleep.  If he disregarded those wishes, what else is he likely to disregard?  Another red flag.

Three big warning signs in the space of a short interaction.  That is why it was creepy.