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My thoughts on Elevatorgate: it’s all about rape

I’m going to talk a bit about sex in this post. If that’s not your thing, click here.

The main period of furor regarding the exchange now known as Elevatorgate seems to have died down, and it seems clear that almost no one involved has learned anything from the experience. Since I am usually several weeks behind on major issues and news items, now seems like a good time to opine.

For those not familiar with Elevatorgate, it was a debate/shouting match arising out of comments made in the atheist blogosphere, but it has relevance and ramifications far beyond that particular community. Much digital ink has been spilled already, but the basic facts are these: Rebecca Watson, a young female blogger attending a conference gave a talk about the role of women in the atheist community and about the difficulties faced by women in the largely male atheist intellectual community. Later on, she was with friends at the hotel bar at around 4:00 a.m., when she announced she was tired and was going to her room to go to sleep. In the elevator, a man who was also attending the conference stated that he would like to get to know her better and invited her to his room for coffee. She later recounted this story in a YouTube video and noted, in essence, that this wasn’t very cool and guys shouldn’t do this. In reponse to this comment, massive furor erupted.

I don’t much care to evaluate the responses to Watson’s video or the droves of commentary that have ensued, except to say that apparently Watson’s comment has made many men feel that their right to get laid is being threatened. To this, I say that these gentlemen doth protest too much. This probably isn’t the most colossal overreaction in the history of the internet, but it must be on the list. To be clear, Rebecca Watson did not make this a big deal – the guys who responded did.

Relevant comments begin around 4:30
It did not strike me as a particularly provocative comment. In effect, Watson said a guy spoke to her in a way that made her uncomfortable (i.e. in an elevator at 4 a.m. in a foreign country), and that is not cool. That’s all. After thinking about this whole incident and the firestorm it has provoked, I am finally beginning to understand the concepts of male privilege and why it might be difficult for women in a male-dominated community. I am finally beginning to get it.

More precisely, I get that I don’t get it.

I will not be getting catcalls from these guys (Photo by Jens Rydén)

As a man, I am generally not judged too harshly on my appearance. Any mistakes or missteps I make in life reflect only on me, not all men. Construction workers leave me alone.

The same is not necessarily true for women. Women potentially get hit on anywhere they go, be it a nightclub, the frozen food aisle, or an elevator in the middle of the night. And it can be scary.

Why is it scary? Because a woman has no idea how the man hitting on her might react. A popular meme among both men and women is that women control the sexual purse strings, so to speak. Since men are presumed to always want sex and women are presumed to be “gatekeepers,” the power dynamic in the scenario of a woman being hit on in an elevator is that the woman has all the power because she can say no.

Here’s the thing: how does she know that the man will take no for an answer? That is the elephant in the room. This is ultimately not a discussion about the right to hit on someone, or who holds the power to grant or withhold sex. This is a discussion about rape, plain and simple.

When a woman is approached and hit on by a strange man (and sometimes a familiar one), she has no idea how he will react if she says no. Will he shrug it off and move on? Will he slink away in embarrassment? Or will he ignore her, either out of a desire to do violence or a stupid belief that “no” means “yes”? She does not know.

This became clear to me from a pre-Elevatorgate article entitled “Schrödinger’s Rapist” by Phaedra Starling. (If you’re not familiar with Schrödinger’s Cat, go read about it. I’ll wait.)

Starling writes as though writing to a typical Nice Guy:

Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?

I don’t.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Now then, obviously most men are not rapists, or at least most men do not think they are rapists. Most men want to meet someone they like with whom they can spend time, or they at least want to get laid. Our culture has created a duality in which men are always striving towards sex and women are always pulling away from it (that’s a gross oversimplification, but fundamentally accurate). In its most extreme forms, men are taught to use whatever subterfuge they can to get a woman to submit, and women are taught to always be coy and slightly out of reach. The whole notion of the “battle of the sexes,” in my humble opinion, is crap and a recipe for centuries more of unhappy marriages and unsatisfying sex lives. More to the point, my opinion is that sex that is completely mutually desired and honest is inifintely better than sex that you had to talk someone into, or that you view as some sort of transaction or power dynamic.



I suspect that many men saw Watson’s comments and immediately thought they were being accused of being rapists. Read Starling’s article again. It’s one thing to call someone a rapist. It’s another thing to not automatically trust that someone is not a rapist. Perhaps it’s a subtle, nuanced difference, but it is important. Is it fair to men? Not really. Is it somehow discriminatory? Maybe. Is it necessary in order for a woman to protect herself? Quite possibly. Does this herald the end of men getting to have sex with women. No, and you’re kind of an idiot if you think that it does.

No one is trying to stop men from hitting on women, or from trying to get laid. The point is to communicate, and to respect people’s feelings and boundaries. If you don’t, trouble could ensue—since this is supposed to be a law blog, now is a good time to look at how “rape” is actually defined. The Texas Penal Code defines “sexual assault” as follows:

Sec. 22.011.  SEXUAL ASSAULT.  (a)  A person commits an offense if the person:

(1)  intentionally or knowingly:
(A)  causes the penetration of the anus or sexual organ of another person by any means, without that person’s consent;

(B)  causes the penetration of the mouth of another person by the sexual organ of the actor, without that person’s consent;  or

(C)  causes the sexual organ of another person, without that person’s consent, to contact or penetrate the mouth, anus, or sexual organ of another person, including the actor;  or

(b)  A sexual assault under Subsection (a)(1) is without the consent of the other person if:

(1)  the actor compels the other person to submit or participate by the use of physical force or violence;

(2)  the actor compels the other person to submit or participate by threatening to use force or violence against the other person, and the other person believes that the actor has the present ability to execute the threat;

(3)  the other person has not consented and the actor knows the other person is unconscious or physically unable to resist;


(6)  the actor has intentionally impaired the other person’s power to appraise or control the other person’s conduct by administering any substance without the other person’s knowledge;

(7)  the actor compels the other person to submit or participate by threatening to use force or violence against any person, and the other person believes that the actor has the ability to execute the threat;


(Emphasis added)

Everyone is still allowed to flirt. Just don't be a d!ck about it. (Photo by o5com)

Consent, force, threats, ability to execute a threat, impairment, etc. Generally speaking, a man only has to worry about whether or not a woman will say yes. A secondary concern might be issues of embarrassment, status, etc. I have no idea what it is to go through life having to worry about issues of force, impairment, and so on, but I have no reason to doubt that these are very real concerns for about one-half of the population.

Elevatorgate threw the door open on issues I had never even considered. The actions of elevator guy would never be my style, but I would hope that most people would realize that there is a time and place to try to get laid (and that there are more concerns in life than just getting laid, like having conversations or watching movies.) An elevator is not one of those places.


UPDATE: I have to include this comment, which put things even more in perspective:

A question for the men who think it’s an insult for a woman not to trust them:

If Rebecca had been raped by elevator guy, would you be saying “Well she shouldn’t have gone to his room in the first place.”


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