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There are people in this audience right now, who believe that a woman's reasonable expectation to feel safe from sexual objectification and assault at Skeptic- and Atheist events is outweighed by a man's right to sexually objectify her.
Rebecca Watson[1]

Elevatorgate is the common name for a controversy in 2011 that touched on feminism, privilege, conference creeps, and the social makeup of the skepticsphere. It started with a video by Rebecca Watson about sexism in the atheist community and caused criticism of Richard Dawkins after he wrote a blog comment in response titled "Dear Muslima". It was a watershed moment that exposed the third major rift within the Anglophone skeptical movement (the first two being religion and politics).

The initial video[edit]

In June 2011, Rebecca Watson, the founder of the website Skepchick, mentioned in a vlog an experience she'd had at a recent conference where she spoke about sexism in the atheist community. At 4 in the morning, after a night at the hotel bar, a man followed her to the elevator and invited her to his hotel room for coffee. The invitation made Watson uncomfortable, and she suggested to her audience that they not behave in a similar manner (from 4:30 in):[2][note 1]

... All of you except for the one man who didn't really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel, because, at the bar later that night — actually at four in the morning, we were at the hotel bar, four a.m. I said I've had enough guys, I'm exhausted, going to bed, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more, would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?" Um, just a word to the wise here, guys, don't do that. I don't really know how else to explain that this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I'll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at four a.m., in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and I, don't invite me back to your hotel room right after I've finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner.

Information icon.svg For anyone who doesn't get it

Many women get nervous if they are trapped in an enclosed space with a stranger who is suggestively propositioning them. Propositioning a stranger without at least gauging their interest is generally seen as creepy. And doing this in an environment where they can't run away is a huge no-no.

As it was just a note in a longer video about the conference, it unfortunately went mostly unnoticed, except for two other female atheists who disagreed with Watson and believed the man's comment wasn't aggressive, and ended up devolving into the typical nasty YouTube comment fare.[3] Even this did not cause anyone else to care.

Seriously, watch the original video. No shaming, no naming, no ranting. She did not accuse the man who approached her of rape, she hasn't given any more details about him (and nor has anyone else), so no doxxing either. It probably would have been fine if it ended here, but instead this was the impetus for years of hate.

The reaction[edit]

A week later, while presenting at a Center for Inquiry conference, Watson discussed the response to her video, citing some alarming comments and emails directed at her.[4] PZ Myers, a friend of Watson's, would later defend Watson, arguing in a blog post that the insults and slurs directed at Watson were evidence of the sexism within the atheist community.[5]

The post's comment thread was full of trolling and flames, when Richard Dawkins decided to interject with a comment letter headed "Dear Muslima." Dawkins accused Watson of overreacting and compared her experience to those of women being forced to wear burkas or undergo genital mutilation (a classic example of the not as bad as fallacy):[6]

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.[7]

Dawkins identifies as a strong supporter of women's rights and is a vocal opponent of the mistreatment of women by religious bigots;[8] however, his comments drew the ire of many within the atheist movement. Many feminists also disagree with his characterisation of himself as supportive of women's rights, especially after he said rape victims who had consumed alcohol should be considered untrustworthy and shouldn't be allowed to testify against their attackers[9] and insisted being raped by someone you knew was not as bad as stranger rape.[10]

Things generally devolved from there with some of Watson's defenders repeatedly calling Dawkins a misogynist.[11][12][13] A lot of big names, attempting to show off their credentials, came out in support of either Watson or Dawkins. The opinion of the lowly peon commenters was mixed, and sometimes quite sexist. Most of those involved agreed people were overreacting, but each blamed the opposite side.[3]

He was also disinvited from a conference after sharing a video mocking feminists.[14] He has also been criticised for "mansplaining" feminism to Muslim women, who have assured him they have things in hand.[15]

The resolution[edit]

Guys, don't do that.

In a show of good faith, Dawkins arranged to provide childcare at future atheist meetings, a move generally praised by the community.[16][17]

Three years after, Dawkins apologised for the "Dear Muslima" letter, in passing, on another blog post.[18] Watson accepted the apology as better than nothing, saying "Eh I'll take it".[19]

See also[edit]


  1. Rebecca Watson and Rape Culture in the atheist movement, @CFI conference 2011
  2. "About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes". YouTube. 20 June 2011. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 SUIRAUQA. "Oh, the humanity of it all!". ohthehumanityofitall.blogspot.ca. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  4. "Blogger". aratina.blogspot.com. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  5. "Always name names!". Pharyngula. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  6. Remy Stern. [Gawker.com: archive.is, web.archive.org "Richard Dawkins Torn Limb From Limb—By Atheists"]. Gawker (Gawker Media). Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  7. The Privilege Delusion, Watson
  8. "National Secular Society". secularism.org.uk. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  9. Richard Dawkins has lost it: ignorant sexism gives atheists a bad name
  10. [1] Richard Dawkins is wrong to suggest that there can be varying degrees of severity involved in rape
  11. "Twitter". twitter.com. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  12. "Richard Dawkins is a Sexist Jerk". YouTube. 20 July 2011. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  13. "Richard Dawkins is a misogynist? Really?". democraticunderground.com. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.
  14. [2] Richard Dawkins dropped from science event for tweeting video mocking feminists and Islamists
  15. [3] Richard Dawkins mansplains feminism to Muslim women, Bhutto hits back
  16. "Dawkins coup de grâce in Vegas"
  17. Dawkins Announces Funding for Childcare, Blaghag
  18. https://richarddawkins.net/2014/08/who-is-belittling-what/
  19. "Rebecca Watson". Twitter. Retrieved on 13 October 2015.


  1. An elevator is an uncomfortable setting for a sexual proposition, especially from a stranger; there are no witnesses and getting away is impossible until the elevator stops. Yes, a person stuck in such a situation can press a button and get out early, but that would mean, at the least, admitting fear, and creating a socially-awkward situation. At worst, if the person initiating the proposal is thinking of anything nasty, such a move may trigger them attacking.