Richard Dawkins Really Just Needs an Internal Editor

Richard Dawkins, writer, activist, biologist, is attracting attention for some recent comments that some say minimize the effect of the sexual abuse, rape or molestation of children. Was that the point he was really trying to make? If not, where did he go wrong?

It began with a tweet made from a recent debate:

Text: “Tonight,Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said 'she might feel was yucky.'”

Text: “Tonight,Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said ‘she might feel was yucky.’”

Since I like steelmanning (the opposite of strawmanning), I’d like to believe he’s trying to make a legitimate point. But it goes very wrong when he uses such fraught comparisons and categorical statements.

As has been pointed out, the line of argument is not new for Dawkins. In The God Delusion he says, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic [and therefore teaching him about hell] in the first place” (pg 356). The book also brings up the story of a Catholic women who told him that while “being fondled by [a] priest simply left the impression…as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear” (pg 357). It’s important to note that Dawkins is comparing the long term psychological effects, not the events themselves. is Richard Dawkins minimizing child abuse? Yes and no. While his statements do minimize the awfulness of child sexual abuse, it seems clear from context that that is not his intention. In fact, to minimize child sexual abuse would diminish the power of his point. Dawkins is trying, both in his book and in the debate in question, to emphasize the power and harmful effects of teaching young children about a torturous pit of fire which awaits them if they behave poorly. This point seems compelling enough on its own, but it is true that teaching children about hell is considered almost entirely noncontroversial. To combat what he sees as a complacent public, he chooses to compare the teaching of hell to something universally accepted as awful: the sexual abuse of children. Note that he says, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was.” If sexual abuse were not so devastating, then Richard Dawkins could not make this point. He needs it to be bad and for people to accept it as such.

Even so, he is still most assuredly running a risk of being highly misinterpreted. A comparison between two bad things always has the potential of minimizing one, overstating the other or both. Possibly aware of this, in the book, Dawkins is somewhat careful to qualify and constrain his point. He says that the damage of childhood sexual abuse is arguably less damaging than the teaching of hell, and later says that he is only trying to show that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass the physical.”, the entire way this point is made is a bad idea. People understandably get upset by what they perceive to be anything minimizing child abuse.  Since the comparison isn’t necessary to his point, it’s not worth the risk of being misunderstood that way. That said, Dawkins is not strictly wrong. He is right in that psychological abuse can be worse than physical. He is probably right that in some, perhaps even many, cases, (including the woman in the book and himself) victims of childhood abuse who were taught about hell personally characterize the latter as worse that the former. Up until this point, the whole argument is merely potentially interesting speculation that on balance distracts and detracts from his broader discussion of the harms of religion. then, Dawkins abandoned the nuance. If the tweet is accurate, Dawkins argued that “teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said ‘she might feel was yucky’.”  For the purposes of scoring debate points, he changed “potentially worse” or “in some cases worse” to “always worse.” That’s unacceptable. Richard Dawkins’ (who was himself abused as a child) past experiences and knowledge of people’s stories gives him an understanding of some of the ways that abuse can manifest and affect people’s lives. It does not give him the right to make general claims about the experiences of others, even in off-the-cuff remarks. He has no basis other than guesses and anecdotes for saying that it is in general worse to be taught about hell than to be sexually abused. In fact, what evidence there is is against him. His potentially interesting speculation became an overgeneralized, unfounded claim about things which are difficult and traumatic experiences for others. In this, he is guilty of appearing more certain than he is to win rhetorical points, which caused pain for others.

Further, he used a single, real example (the feeling of yuckiness described by the woman he quotes in his book), and implied that it might be a general sentiment. While in principle it might be true, and some victims of sexual abuse do in fact feel that their experiences were not as awful as is commonly expected, to claim without evidence that that might at all be universal is minimizing the effects of child sexual abuse. He is implying, especially with the use of the childish word ‘yucky’ (even though it came from the anecdote) that sexual abuse might not in general be quite so bad. Elsewhere I believe he is not guilty of this claim, but in this specific case, he is.

So is Dawkins guilty of minimizing child abuse? Yes, but he is far more guilty of being merely thoughtless about his initial statement in his book and careless with the evidence and feelings of others in the real-time context of a debate. I think that that nuance is important, since thoughtlessness and error are different than malice or cruelty. I do not think that Richard Dawkins does not consider child abuse bad, nor do I think he intends to hurt those who have experienced it. To claim otherwise is an uncharitable overreading of the evidence available.

Some other ideas I’m bouncing around that didn’t make their way into the main body of the post:

  • I think that careless statements about child abuse, as hurtful as they are, are potentially less damaging on a societal level then, say, careless statements about rape, since while there is shame and fear that surrounds childhood sexual abuse, there is no analogous “Child Sexual Abuse Culture” to the best of my knowledge. Thoughts? Full credit for this idea goes to Paul Fisher
  • It seems likely to me that while these statements were absolutely problematic, they were read in a particularly uncharitable light because of Dawkins’ record of sneering and dismissive statements on somewhat related issues. I don’t think the Bayesian evidence of a Dawkins statement being more likely than not to be a bad one is strong enough to override the lack of evidence of true abuse apologetics in this case. Paul probably deserves credit for most of this idea too.

How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

Two days ago, I wrote about how to appropriately respond when a friend publicly shares her story about harassment, assault or rape. But, in the natural way of things, appropriate, loving, sympathetic responses have their nasty counterparts: inappropriate, hurtful, mean responses.

It’s unfortunate that so often it’s well-meaning people who give these responses. They may use tropes from popular culture as a guide to how to respond, and popular culture doesn’t deal with sexual violence well. They sometimes overgeneralize from their own experiences. They may simply have just not considered how their comment will come across. I want to make it easier for these well-meaning people of the world to respond helpfully to their friends.

Here, then, is a list of what responses not to give when someone you know has been brave enough to share her story, along with explanations. If you recognize your own past comments in this post, I ask you not to react defensively. I am not attacking you; I know you were doing your best. I am sharing my understanding of how you can do even better.

If curious, see my note from last time on my use of feminine pronouns.

How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

1. Don’t Apologize for or Defend the Perpetrator: Your friend has just invited the entire internet to peer into an incredibly private and hurtful event in her life, something awful that someone did to her. Please, please, please do not respond to her by defending what was done to her. You may think she has a bad read on the situation. You may know the person she’s talking about. But if you are trying to be a friend, know that there is essentially nothing more harmful you could do. You are defending harm that was done to her, an unwanted sexual experience of some kind. You are placing yourself on the side of someone who did her wrong. That’s not what friends do.

2. Don’t Question the Experience, or Her Interpretation of Events: Let me be careful about this one. I do not mean that your friend could not be wrong about how certain events transpired. I do not mean that she could not have interpreted an action or behavior in a way different than was meant. What I mean is, the fact that your friend is hurting should be enough to warrant sympathy, not interrogation. This holds even if you know that the thing that made your friend uncomfortable is something you do sometimes and you don’t mean anything by it. Even you know the person in question and you know he or she didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. Even if you think your friend is being kind of sensitive.

Because none of that erases the fact that she was made to feel uncomfortable, or violated, or hurt. When you question that, you make it seem like you don’t particularly care that she’s hurting, or worse, that it’s her fault she’s hurt. Even simple factual corrections take the focus away from what happened to her and how she felt and put it on whether she got the order of events right. It’s not the point, and it’s not the time.

If you really feel that you must give a correction (and really, do so with care), here’s how to frame it:

Original comment: “Michael always puts his arms around people. It’s not a big deal”

Better comment: “This doesn’t make it ok, but just for the record, I happen know Michael, and I know he doesn’t mean harm when he puts his arm around girls. But he should have asked you before he did it, so it really sucks that you were made to feel uncomfortable.” [Addition in italics credit to Ami]

2b. Corollary: Don’t argue that the experience was actually a good one: If your friend doesn’t feel like the harassment, assault or rape was a compliment (hint: usually not), then it’s not. It’s not good that “at least [she] can get a date,” as Ami points out. If your friend tells a story about something unpleasant that happened to them, and you play it like it was some blessing in disguise, it comes across like you’re not really listening, and also that you don’t really care about how your friend says she feels. Please, listen to your friend. Trust her. Credit: Ami

3. Don’t ask about irrelevant details: What your friend was wearing, how drunk she was, whether she was alone and anything else she has chosen not to share with the world, don’t matter. Just as in #2, whatever the answers are, your friend has still experienced discomfort, violation and/or pain at the hands of someone else. That’s the most important thing. Focusing on the details again makes it seem like you don’t much care about the event itself, or how your friend feels. And when you specifically focus on details like the ones I used as an example, you come perilously close to implying that if she were wearing a short skirt, drunk, or alone, that it is her fault. That’s not fair to your friend, and it’s extremely hurtful. Just don’t.

The examples I used above are pretty specific to the post-sexual violence questions addressed at women, and especially cis-women. If your friend has a nontraditional sexual violence narrative, all the analysis still holds. Don’t ask about irrelevant details. Don’t pry if your friend doesn’t share. Even if you’re just curious. That last part holds especially when your friend doesn’t have the standard story, because they probably already feel different. So if your friend has a penis, don’t ask if they got hard. If your friend is trans, “don’t ask about their genitals, or …how they could have been raped with the genitals or body that they have.” It’s nosy and blame-y and unsympathetic. Let your friend tell what they are comfortable with. Credit for the ideas in this above paragraph: Ami

4. Probably the most important: Don’t tell your friend how she could have done better, or what she should do in the future: 

Part A: I know you’re trying to help. I know you’re sure it’s good advice, that it’s helped you before.  But remember that to have experienced something frightening or traumatic and then to be told that if only you had done something differently, it wouldn’t have happened, hurts. It hurts a lot, and it comes off as blame, even if you don’t mean it to.

Consider telling a story to your friends about how a boss yelled at you all day for no reason and you were really upset about it, and their response was, “Well, you should always try to have a good relationship with your employer.” Even if it’s true, it’s incredibly unhelpful now. Also, it changes the subject from the mean boss and the awful day to whether your friend is a good employee. That’s mean, and it tends to imply that they deserved what they got.

Now imagine how much harder it hits when you call into question not whether your friend is doing their job correctly but rather whether they are living their life correctly. And because we’re talking about a publicly shared story, other survivors and victims will see what you’ve written, and see that your first thought was to correct the behavior of the victim, and they will know that their story will likely be met the same way. That hurts.

Part B: Further remember that women are constantly told about all the ways that they can avoid sexual violence, which means that the odds that you will say something your friend has not heard before are vanishingly small. Don’t walk alone at night? Heard it. Always watch your drink? Heard it. Don’t engage with strange men? Heard it. So even if your advice is good advice, it’s just not the time.

Remember that the time right after going public with a story of sexual violence is a sensitive and scary one. If your friend hasn’t asked for advice, you are more likely to hurt her than help her by giving it. If you are close friends, and you really think there’s something you can say that will make your friend safer in the future, there might be an exception, but please give your suggestion privately, sympathetically, and in a thoroughly unblaming way so as not to fall into this category.

Part C: Finally, please remember that your friend is not the only person in her story. There is a perpetrator, a harasser, assaulter or rapist. And if your comment, or even a part of your comment, ignores the rapist’s wrongdoing in favor of the victim’s wrongdoing, that hurts immeasurably. I realize that it seems like the perpetrator’s wrong could go without saying, and yet it so often does not. Rape apologetics is everywhere. So by focusing on what your friend could have done better, you are telling her that she has not lived her life rightly enough that people will not correct her behavior before correcting her attacker’s.

I will continue to add to this list based on the ideas of my wonderful commenters, with credit always given. 

5. Don’t say how you would have made it better had you been there: I know this one seems really supportive (“I totally would have beat up that guy”, etc.), but it’s another one to be careful with. It takes the attention from your friend and her story and makes it about you and your (rightful) anger at what happened to her. This makes it harder to tell stories, since it feels like no one is really paying attention. As Ami says, “I’m really tired of guys trying to make me sharing something like this into some heroic fantasy of theirs where I’m the damsel to be saved. :\” Credit: Ami, Ellen

6. Don’t tell your friend she’s doing it wrong: Kind of a corollary to #2, and also #4. These experiences are hard, and people respond to them in all kinds of ways. The only people who are really qualified to decide whether your friend is reacting “correctly” are her and the people she most trusts to talk to about it (including possibly a professional of some kind). This all holds double if you yourself experienced something similar and have reacted differently. That’s great for you, especially if the experience didn’t cause lasting harm. But your experience isn’t universal, and it’s not fair to assume that it should be. Let your friend respond how she needs to. Again, trust her. Credit: Miriam

Too many people experience harassment, assault and rape every day. Some of them manage, through the pain, to tell their stories. It is unconscionable not to respect that brave decision. So if it is your friend who has endured that pain, please consider this list. Please think about not contributing to a culture that blames women for the sexual violence aimed at them. Please think about what has happened to them instead of what they may have done wrong. Please think, first and foremost, about what they need, and what you can give them. Remember that your words have power; be careful with them.


Anything else you think should be on the list? Any responses you’ve given or would like to give or have seen given that you want my take on? Put it all in comments.

The Only Appropriate Responses to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

It usually takes a brave, brave woman to put her thoughts on the internet, especially when they concern feminism, sexuality or any of the trifecta of harassment, assault and rape. And it takes an even braver one to tell her own story of such events, to lay herself open to the taunts, ridicule, correction, victim-blaming, defenses of her attackers, accusations of lying and anti-woman and anti-feminist cliches that are in such abundance online. How hard they must hit when it is not only her own thoughts that are laid bare to thoughtless critique, but her own story.

Not all commenters are intentionally cruel, of course. There’s little I can say to the disgusting hordes of trolls that seek to cause only pain and frustration to those who have already suffered so much. I am not speaking to them here.

But to the rest of you: caring, compassionate friends of a writer who has just published an essay, blog post, tweet, etc. in which she tells the world of her experience of sexual violence, you sometimes unintentionally do harm too. You sometimes repeat hurtful ideas perpetuated by an uncaring culture. You sometimes attempt to give advice that turns into an accusation. You sometimes condescend or patronize.

I don’t think you want to. So let’s talk about how to stop causing unintentional harm to the people you know, love and care about.

Note: All of these points are relevant to survivors of all genders. However, it is my understanding that the experience of a woman survivor is different than that of a man survivor, the the experience of being a cis survivor, man or woman, is different than being a trans, genderqueer or otherwise gender noncomforming survivor, because of our society’s approach to femininity, masculinity, rape culture, and cisnormativity. I do not yet know enough to address these differences here. Because my understanding of this issue has been informed by my being a woman, and by all the survivors I know being women, I have consistently used feminine pronouns.

Without further ado, The Only Appropriate Responses to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape.

1. Sympathy and Support: I said this already, but it bears repeating: it is really, really hard to tell these stories. They are personal, they are private, and the writer has no idea how people will respond. And that’s all on top of the story itself, some awfulness that happened to this person in your life, something you might just be finding out about now. For facing all of that, for facing terrible life events, getting through them, and still having the courage to write about them publicly, your friend deserves all of the sympathy and support you can muster. Tell them you understand (if you do). Offer whatever you can give. Try to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Remember that it’s about them, not you. Rage against the culture that put them in their situation. Congratulate them on their bravery; praise their strength.

1b. (Cautiously!) Give helpful suggestions: Your friend may have everything under control. She may have all the resources she needs. She also may not. Recognize that you do not know. If you think you have a worthwhile idea that may help, say so. Things like what worked for you, if you went through something similar (see #2). Resources like therapy, RAINN, hotlines. Support groups that you know to be reputable. Make sure you are careful to note that you know that your advice will not work for everyone, and that everyone should do what they feel appropriate in consultation with friends, family and relevant experts. This demonstrates sympathy and humility in the face of their personal experience while still helping them to the best of your ability.

2. Similar stories: If you feel it appropriate, and you’re comfortable doing so, tell your own story. Such a response will show your friend that she is not alone, and that she can count on your support, both of which are extremely welcome and comforting. Your story can also expand the conversation, making it easier for even more people to come out with their own. Every additional story shows all readers and onlookers that your friend’s story is not unique, that sexual violence of all types is all too common and that all of those who have undergone it, along with their supporters, stand together.

3. A statement of change: Our culture does a pretty bad job of caring for victims of harassment, assault and rape. We dismiss their experiences, accuse them of lying, call them names, blame them for their own struggles, and don’t send their perpetrators to jail. Some of that can’t be fixed by just one person. But if your friend’s story compels you to reconsider your attitude to victims or survivors, encourages you to see the world differently, makes you newly aware that life can look different for women (and it should), definitely say so. If your behavior is going to change as a result of knowing this story, and knowing that you probably know someone who has experienced sexual violence, say so. The change wrought by the telling of stories matters, and any author would appreciate the knowledge that she had made a difference in the culture’s perceptions of people like her.

4. What the author has asked for: Most of all, listen. This is your friend, right? Make sure you’ve read the entirety of what she’s written, and that you’ve done your best to understand what she’s tried to communicate. If she asks her readers not to use explicit language in their responses, don’t. If she asks for sympathy, give it, and if you cannot muster it, don’t say anything at all. Be a friend.

I may have missed something, but by and large, this is the list. This is it. If the response you’d like to give to someone you know who is writing about their own sexual harassment, assault or rape isn’t on this list, and you care about not hurting this person, my advice is not to give it. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about caring for the hurting, and leaving things better than you found them.

Next time: How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

P.S. Much of this might apply to people dealing with harsh circumstances stemming from mental illness stigma, racism, or many other forms of systemic harm and oppression. I know less about those things, and this was focused for a reason, so I leave those pieces to others to write.