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What was Elevatorgate?

Sum it up fairly here people!

It will be next to impossible to sum it up in a way that appears fair to all parties. Let us then decide that this page will attempt to take a neutral point of view, and will defer to external websites as sources of different opinions on the matter. This page will attempt to provide an objective and accurate description of events, without making subjective or speculative judgments about those events. It is fine to post the opinion of some source, but the source must be referenced as a primary source (e.g. with an external link directly to the source of the opinion.

External Links

From Freethought Kampala

(This post (http://freethoughtkampala.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/elevatorgate/) contains a very thorough history of Elevator Gate, including various branchings of the dispute.)

Elevatorgate is the unprecedented internet war that erupted after Rebecca Watson posted a video in which she discussed an ordeal she experienced in an elevator while attending the World Atheist Convention which took place in Dublin, Ireland, from June 3rd to June 5th, 2011.

During the months of July and August 2011, the atheist-skeptic blogosphere was ablaze with accusations, counter-accusations, verbal fights, moral declarations and insults as hundreds of bloggers and millions of their readers tried to determine whose assessment of the events narrated by Watson best represented the facts at hand.

What also came under much discussion, and perhaps the crux of Elevatorgate, was Watson’s conduct after posting the initial video, particularly her treatment of a female student called Stef McGraw – and the manner in which dissenting opinions were dismissed as being products of misogyny and sexism.


Rebecca Watson is the founder of Skepchick, which she says is an organization dedicated to promoting skepticism and critical thinking among women around the world. Watson is also one of the co-presenters of the popular Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe podcast. She is fairly well-known in atheist-skeptic circles, and speaks at many events targeted at that community. Many of her talks tackle feminism – of which she is a vocal advocate.

She was invited to speak at this year’s World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Ireland, at the conference, she participated in a panel discussion on Communicating Atheism.

This is where the infamous incident took place.

According to an account she gives in the video below (posted on June 20, 2011), sometime during the period of the conference, she was having drinks with friends late into the night. At about 4am, she told her companions that she was tired and was going to bed. She entered the elevator and was joined by a man. While in the elevator, the man expressed interest in talking to Rebecca some more and invited her to his hotel room for coffee. She declined, but felt that she had been sexualised in the process. She also said it made her very uncomfortable to be approached this way, and suggested to ‘guys’ that – as a general rule – they should not to do this:

{{#ev:youtube|uKHwduG1Frk|425|center|About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes}}

Not all were in agreement with Watson. Some female students, such as Rose St. Clair and Stef McGraw, did not agree that the actions of the man in the elevator constituted sexism or objectification, and expressed their reasons why. Rosie St. Clair put out a video explaining her position on the matter, a day after Watson posted hers (June 21st):

{{#ev:youtube|TfA5AZutpCs|425|center|My response and take on sexism in the atheist community}}

…and Stef McGraw posted an article in her blog, a day after that (June 22nd ):

Watson is upset that this man is sexualizing her just after she gave a talk relating to feminism, but my question is this: Since when are respecting women as equals and showing sexual interest mutually exclusive? Is it not possible to view to take interest in a woman AND see her as an intelligent person?
Someone who truly abides by feminist principles would, in my view, have to react in the same manner were the situation reversed; if a woman were to engage a man in the same way, she would probably be creeping him out and making him uncomfortable and unfairly sexualizing him, right? But of course no one ever makes that claim, which is why I see Watson’s comment as so hypocritical.
If you really want social equality for women, which is what feminism is, why not apply the same standards to men and women, and stop demonizing men for being sexual beings?

By this time this controversy was still relatively unknown in the wider atheist-skeptic community. Not very happy with the comments from these students, on June 26th, during her presentation at the CFI Student Leadership Conference titled “The Religious Right VS Every Woman On Earth”, Rebecca Watson decided to criticise Stef McGraw. She did this after briefly talking about sexism in the atheist movement at the start of her talk, and showing her audience samples of highly obscene hate mail she receives from people who disagree with her views, particularly on feminism. She cited McGraw’s views as being part of the problem:

{{#ev:youtube|aqzE16UsNW4|425|center|Rebecca Watson: The Religious Right vs. Every Woman on Earth - CFI}}

About McGraw’s comments, Watson said:

“This is, unfortunately, a pretty standard parroting of misogynistic thought.”

She later expanded on her criticisms of McGraw in a blog post on Skepchick two days later (June 28th), prompted by criticism Watson herself was receiving from several students over Twitter. They were unhappy at the way McGraw was called out during the conference:

I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?”

Shocked at how Watson used her position as a keynote speaker at the CFI student conference to criticise her in that manner, McGraw posted the following on her blog:

Then, a day later at the conference, Watson delivered a keynote speech on the religious right’s war against women. Before she got to her main content, though, she decided to address sexism in the secular movement, which she views as a rampant problem. I shared her disgust as she showed screenshots of people online calling her demeaning names, making comments about her appearance, and, worst of all, making rape comments.
Then, switching gears, Watson made a remark to the extent that there are people in our own community who would not stand up for her in these sorts of situations; my name, organization, and a few sentences from my blog post then flashed on the screen before my eyes. She went on to explain how I didn’t understand what objectification meant and was espousing anti-woman sentiment.
My first reaction was complete shock. I wasn’t surprised that she had seen my post, but I didn’t think she would choose to address it during her keynote, let alone place it in a category with people advocating for her to be raped. In fact, I was excited to possibly speak with her afterward in order to discuss the matter face-to-face. Instead, all I could do was just sit there and watch myself being berated for supposedly espousing anti-woman views and told that I wouldn’t stand up for women in sticky situations with men, as one hundred of my peers watched on. I found both of those accusations to be completely and utterly incorrect, as anyone who actually knows me could tell you I care deeply about fighting sexist thought. I started thinking, how can I respond? It didn’t feel right to have to endure a widely respected keynote speaker’s accusations that I was a living example of what was wrong with our movement while I sat there unable to defend my position.
There was no time at the conference where I, as a student attendee, could appropriately make any sort of public statement addressing what Watson claimed about my argument and me. She has said over Twitter that “An attendee has every right to counter during Q&A or by publicly blogging again later,” but there are issues with both of these approaches. First, the Q&A was not an option in my mind, as I wasn’t going to get up after her great talk and argue with her about something unrelated; I have more respect for a speaker than that.
[…] My issue is the forum in which Ms. Watson chose to present her views, as it was one in which there was an extreme imbalance of power. As I stated before, I was a student listening to her along with one hundred of my peers, while she was a keynote with a following and internationally successful blog. She had a podium, and I had nothing but word of mouth.

Sharing McGraw’s disappointment, scientist and blogger Abbie Smith (ERV) charged that Watson’s actions were in bad form (July 1st):

Someone says something you disagree with, so you actively try to discuss the issue with said person in a reasonable manner!! THE SECOND SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE!!!
Who the hell thinks Watsons behavior will ‘get through’ to McGraw better than a 30 minute discussion with McGraw on why Watson was hurt/disappointed/whatever by what McGraw said? On what planet would Watsons behavior have resulted in a net positive? Someone with Watsons speaking experience and internet experience should have done better.
Even granting the premise that what Watson did was technically 100% ‘not wrong’, what she did was bad form.:And worst of all… dammit worst of all– Watsons comments in her speech re: McGraw were apparently completely unnecessary. The audience appeared to view her McGraw comments as separate from her actual speech, and Watson herself said that it was leik, only two minutes, for reals. So why the fuck did she bring it up at all? Why??? Cause it was the bitchy thing to do! McGraw said something Watson thought was bitchy, so Watson did something bitchy right back.Goddammit. As a woman in skepticism, Rebecca Watson, thank you so much for that. I really appreciate it. I really do. Irony is one of my favorite sources of lulz, and nothing is more ironic than someone embodying the stereotype they purport to be combating, especially when I myself am trying to combat those stereotypes. Faaaaantastic.

It was around this time that this by now growing controversy came to the attention of prominent blogger PZ Myers of Pharyngula. In his first posting on the matter, he wrote, in Always Name Names (July 2nd):

There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways — Rebecca Watson recently experienced this in an elevator in Dublin, and I think this encounter Ophelia Benson had reflects the same attitude: women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them. Also as liberal, enlightened people, of course, we will graciously accede to their desires, and if they ask us to stop hassling them, we will back off, politely. Isn’t that nice of us?
It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior.
[…] But I don’t want to talk about that.I want to mention one thing that annoys me. Rebecca Watson talked about this experience at a CFI conference, and one thing she did was to directly address, by name, criticisms of her reaction to being importuned in an elevator late at night. She specifically discussed a criticism by one of the attendees, Stef McGraw, quoting her and saying where the argument was found, and a few people were angry at her for that, and demanded that she apologize to McGraw. Which is, frankly, bizarre.

While siding with Watson and taking the view that she was justified in ‘naming’ Stef McGraw as she addressed her criticisms, he did not acknowledge the fact that McGraw herself actually did not have a problem of being named. She stated very clearly in her blog entry (posted 3 days before Myers’ article):

There are a lot of people arguing on my behalf on Twitter and various blogs saying that the problem is that she used my name. On the contrary, I have no shame for what I said, and am proud to place my name with what I wrote. My issue is the forum in which Ms. Watson chose to present her views, as it was one in which there was an extreme imbalance of power.

It is possible that Myers was not aware of this posting. It was however later brought to his attention in the comments section of the article by one of the first commenters. What followed in the comments thread were discussions about whether or not Watson’s assessment of the elevator incident was justified, and whether or not her treatment of McGraw was fair. Views were divided, and things quickly heated up. Enter Richard Dawkins, who felt the whole scuffle was pointless, considering how much worse – in his view – women have it elsewhere in certain parts of the world:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

His attempt at a sarcastic dismissal of the commotion surrounding Watson’s ordeal was not taken well, and a vicious backlash against him ensued.

From Greg Laden's blog

(The following links are in chronological order by day (but probably mixed up within day)[1].
06-20 About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes (Rebecca Watson)
06-21 Rose Responds and takes on sexism in the atheist community
06-22 Fursdays wif Stef #32 (Stef McGraw)
06-28 On naming names at the CFI student leadership conference (Rebecca Watson)
06-28 Extra, Extra, Read All About It: Rebeccawatsongate Shakes Atheism To Its Core! (Plasma)
06-29 Fursdays wif Stef #33 (Stef McGraw)
07-01 Bad form, Rebecca Watson (ERV)
07-02 On sexism, objectivication, and power (Barbara Drescher, ICBS Everywhere)
07-02 Always name names! (PZ Myers)
07-02 A storm in a blog teacup, or how Stef McGraw spectaculary missed the point (Furious Purpose)
07-02 Rebecca Watson, Barbara Drescher and the Elevator Guy (Greg Laden)
07-02 Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing (Jen McCreight, Blag Hag)
07-03 The decent human being's guide to getting laid at atheist conferences (PZ Myers)
07-03 The Female Skeptic In The Mirror (Ain't The Same As The Female Skeptic On The Wall) (PodBlack Cat)
07-03 Oh, no, not again ... once more unto the breach (PZ Myers)
07-03 Tweet by PZ Myers
07-03 Shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER!!!! (Greg Laden)
07-03 The Decent Human Beings' Guide to Speaking at Atheist Conferences (ERV)
07-04 Ladies, Richard Dawkins knows how to protect you from being raped in an elevator (Greg Laden)
07-04 Rebecca Watson Sucks at Reading Minds (Stephanie Zvan, Almost Diamonds)
07-04 A priest and a rabbi go into an elevator and ... (Ophelia Benson, B&W)
07-04 Skepchick Blues (The Tim Channel)
07-07 Because of the implication (Amanda Marcotte)
07-05 Women in Elevators: A Man to Man Talk for the Menz (Greg Laden)
07-05 The Privilege Delusion (Rebecca Watson)
07-05 Getting and not getting (Ophelia Benson B&W)
07-05 Greg Laden should apologize to Richard Dawkins (For the sake of science)
07-05 Why Feminism in Skepticism is Now More Important than Ever (Steve Thoms)
07-05 A Letter to Professor Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault
07-05 A letter to Richard Dawkins from Victims of Sexual Assault (Bug Girl)
07-05 Richard Dawkins and Male Privilege (Phil Plait)
07-06 The Religion Delusion - Welcome to the Feminist Fold, Atheist Women (Isis)
07-06 Dear Richard Dawkins: You Do Not Know What It's Like to Live in Fear (Dana Hunter)