An Analogy of Assault

There has been a recent controversy in the atheist movement about some comments made by Rebecca Watson about sexism. I really don’t wish to explain the whole thing and thus bring that argument to my doorstep, so I’ll just refer you to the summaries of the events made by Jen McCreight, PZ Myers, and Phil Plait. But essentially, one issue that has been brought up as a result is the fear of rape that many women have. As a straight white man, it is difficult for me to truly understand this fear, and the precautions that women take as a result. I can’t say that I’ve ever been nervous at the thought that I might be sexually assaulted. (Although I’ve often felt nervous about walking behind a solitary woman on the sidewalk, for fear she might be fearful of me! Nobody likes pepper spray in the eyes.) I try to sympathize with women on this, and I try to be a decent human being about the whole thing, but it is difficult, and I understand why many men don’t get it. But walking home today, I had an experience of my own that I think might be roughly analogous to it. I hope that some women can chime in and let me know if the analogy is actually apt.

Beware of Dog signI often take a shortcut when I’m walking home from school. It’s a little forested area near where I live, with a couple pathways running through it. It’s only perhaps a five-minute walk within the forest, so it’s certainly a small area. But often people like to walk their dogs through the area. That’s normally fine. But today, as I walked along the path, a large dog came out of the bushes and stood in front of me on the path. There was no one else in sight, and the dog didn’t have a visible collar. Immediately, I contemplated what I should do. I ended up standing on the path, facing the dog, seeing what it would do. Of course, soon the owner came around the corner and called out to the dog. He told me the dog was harmless (but what dog owner doesn’t say that about their dog?). I just sort of smiled, and waited for the dog to slowly make its way over to the owner. As I passed the two of them, he told me there was another dog up the way that was also “docile”, as he put it. I just said okay, and navigated around the second dog as I passed it.

I don’t know what it’s like to walk into an elevator with a strange man at 4 in the morning and wonder, “Is this man safe to be in an enclosed space with?” I don’t know what it’s like to go on a date with someone and wonder if they are going to pressure me into sex despite my unwillingness. But I do know what it’s like to face a big dog on a pathway and not have any idea of its intentions. Is it a stray? Does it have rabies? Is it going to hurt me? Or is it harmless? The anxiety of not knowing the answers to these questions is my best guess as to what it might be like to worry about rape. The uncertainty involved with strange people (or dogs) with unknown intentions seems similar to me. And just like I don’t go out of my way to pet strange dogs, I find it fully warranted for a woman to take precautions when meeting strange men. Certainly, I wouldn’t say that the physical pain of a dog bite compares in the slightest with the psychological pain that rape can cause. And of course, while the dog cannot prevent making the other nervous, men can change how they act in these situations. So it’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure. But perhaps it might still offer a chance for guys like me to understand why a woman might feel uncomfortable when a stranger approaches her and asks if she’d like to go back to his room for “coffee”. Or why she might feel nervous when walking on a dark street, alone, with little in the way of clear support if needed.

Guys, please don’t be the collarless dog. I certainly know that it’s difficult for anyone to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, but we have to try our best. The more we understand how it feels like to be approached like that, the more we understand how to treat women with respect and make them feel comfortable. In short, understanding another’s perspective is vital to being a decent human being.

(For another great explanation of women’s concerns about rape, see Schrödinger’s Rapist.)

4 responses to “An Analogy of Assault”

Jim Tigwell

It seems like an apt analogy, and I certainly know that feeling of trepidation around strange dogs. As a large, wookiee-shaped person with a penchant for wandering the streets at night, I often get that vibe from people who merely share my route home, and on more than one occasion have watched a hand dart into a purse as I passed by. I can think of nothing I could possibly say that could indicate that, rather than being a terrifying beast in a pair of combat boots, I’m a reasonably harmless philosopher with a bag full of poetry and juggling balls. What I wonder is, what ways are there to alleviate these fears?


That’s a good question, Jim. I really wish I had an answer to it. It seems sad that women are fearful of entirely harmless people, but of course, it’s perfectly understandable that their risk tolerance would be quite low. Better to deal with false positives than to suffer from a single false negative.

So again, good questions that deserve a better answer than “I don’t know.” But…I don’t know. Thanks for the comment 🙂


The thing that somehow struck me the most about the whole Elevatorgate scandal is how it seems to have been intentionally construed – mostly by the hardcore feminist fringe, but partly by atheists from all walks of life – as an issue somehow endemic to the atheist community. I don’t believe that to be the case and I fear it might lead the community on a wild goose chase for a problem that should involve society as a whole but not take centre stage at events like TAM9.


Well, I agree with you that it’s wrong to presume that sexism is confined to the atheist community. It’s everywhere. I think the reason it gets discussed with relative frequency particular to atheists is that a) there is much discussion about how to attract women into the atheist movement, and b) many atheists place high importance on rationality, so it is discouraging when so-called “enlightened” individuals still display sexist behaviour.

So I think that there are steps to be taken in society as a whole to reduce sexist attitudes (as well as racist, ageist, etc.), but if one of our specific goals is to correct the gender imbalance in atheism, I think it warrants a special focus on sexism within atheism as well. When people in our own group (or people who would like to be in our group) don’t feel comfortable, I think it’s entirely reasonable to talk about strategies to deal with it.