Note: Today’s post comes from Ally George, a member of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, the secular group I co-founded and currently serve as President of at DePaul University in Chicago.
Trigger warning: victim shaming, rape apologism, reference to humor about sexual violence, PTSD
Here I am, finally putting text to page, after three separate attempts to write this post. My stomach is in knots, and my foot is doing that involuntary shaking thing that comes with anxiety. This is my first venture into the skeptic blogging world, and it involves subject matter that hits very close to home.
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I am one person with one set of experiences, who developed certain positions as a result. I can only speak for myself. Any time I make broader statements about problems in the skeptic community, it is coming from that vantage point, and my arguments should be taken with a grain of salt.
I’m Ally, I am a survivor, and I am through being silent.
My time at DePaul University has been truly enriched by my involvement in DAFT, and the opportunity to attend Skepticon, and it is my experience with both that prompted this post.
I knew that in order to write this post fairly and effectively, I would have to review the talk that upset me so much to begin with. Rebecca Watson’s talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” became so popular so quickly that I did not feel safe expressing a critical viewpoint, even within my own SSA. As a member of a community that identifies as critical and subversive, this was deeply troubling. I do not have any particular quarrel with Watson’s views on feminism, evo-psych, or shopping. When I attended the talk, I did not have the chance to develop a position on topics at hand. I was too busy being triggered.
This post is purely intended to critique her use of humor around sexual assault and victim shaming, starting at around 25 minutes. I will not address anything else here.
Now, I am fairly certain that Watson’s snark on “rapes waiting to happen” is a stab at people who would actually have women believe the things she mentions, that women who make socially objectionable choices are asking to be sexually assaulted. I can only respond this way.
Say it with me: Rape is not a joke.
Now say this: Rape apologism is not a joke.
It seems that in this talk, Watson couples her quotations with the wave of her hand and the occasional eye roll, in order to put distance between herself and the assertions. This is not enough. Her flippant comment on “the false rape accusation game” is hard to stomach either way. Rape apologists are ridiculed in this talk, but there is little explicit assertion that their statements are serious or harmful, just that “this is what happens to women”. Her intentions are overshadowed by her delivery, and her delivery is very triggering.
For me, this is the real problem. If I am triggered, I am not a part of the conversation. I am in an altered state of consciousness, reduced to the shaking, silent seventeen year old victim I used to be. My reactions are connected to memories of an army of trolls, those who told me to be silent because I had something to be ashamed of. Rebecca Watson’s statements and visual aids echoed the literal hundreds of people who said nearly identical things about me. This connects her talk to a physiological response that I cannot defeat with logic or reason. It just is, and it is until it goes away on its own.
I have heard arguments on how trigger warnings do not work because the warnings themselves are triggers , or that they are some kind of infantilizing paternalist measure. All I can say is that those trigger warnings give me a choice. I can either decide that I am not in a good frame of mind to hear that kind of content and excuse myself from a potentially harmful situation, or if I am feeling up to it, I can choose to take a small risk and hear about things that make me uncomfortable. If Rebecca Watson had suffered me a simple trigger warning, she would have been free to deliver her talk in the manner of her choosing, and I would not be writing this right now.
Bottom line: If I don’t know the subject is coming, I will freak out and shut down. I will feel unsafe. I will not be a quality contributor to the conversation. Conversations about sexual assault are about people like me, and I resent playing a minority role in conversations about an issue that has changed so much of who I am. Let me make that choice without accusing me of being weak and unstable. I am neither. Whether you know who they are, or whether they identify this way, survivors are some of the strongest people you know. As someone who was manipulated and controlled, nothing means more to me than freedom of expression and autonomy, and I refuse to be shamed out of the conversation.
This is the challenge I would like to pose to the skeptic community.
Considering the few statistics we have on sexual abuse and assault, I challenge you to consider that I may not have been the only person in that room who was bothered by Watson’s humor. I challenge you to consider that someone you know and love may be a survivor, and you may have inadvertently said things that hurt them.
I challenge you to remain skeptical at all times, particularly, to quote Deborah Hyde, of “educated and influential people talking bollocks”, because if we do not criticize and debate, we are not doing our job as skeptics. I challenge you to use trigger warnings and avoid humor about trauma, because it may help others feel safe enough to speak out. When I feel safe, I contribute to the discussion with a commitment to logic, reason, and progress, and I am able to take action to help others do the same. The way I see it, however inconvenient it may seem, this is a good thing for the skeptic community.