Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade

It is now ten days since PZ Myers’ Aug. 8 disclosure of rape allegations against a popular skeptic author, the online community continues to be galvanized in a chain reaction of heated discussions on many topics related to gender equity, sexual harassment and the politics of rape. Although I previously wrote that PZ Myers’ disclosure was improper, I now believe it may have significantly raised consciousness of these issues among free-thinking circles. I also wrote that the accusations point towards a much more general problem in modern professional life. Discussions of these problems are appearing everywhere in discussion fora and comment threads within the free-thinking blogosphere. Although the comments often reflect strong opinions (and sometimes mean-spirited opinions), I believe most participants possess flexible minds capable of evolving when exposed to new information. This debate has therefore created a rare opportunity to really deepen our collective understanding of an important but under-recognized issue.

I’ll begin by linking to a few discussion threads that exemplify the back-and-forth:

  • Atheism Plus forum — This group generally advocates inclusion of feminism and social justice topics within the scope of Atheist and skeptic dialogue.
  • The Tim Channel blog — This is a short list of links and excerpts excoriating the “grenade” accusations. This crowd is especially critical of Myers and the Atheism+ group.
  • Lousy Canuck — This post contains a transcript from a recent “Mr Deity” video purportedly about Mormonism, but which has a surprise ending directed toward the Myers accusations. Lousy Canuck offers a dissection and critique of that video as a victim-blaming message.
  • This reddit thread — Predictably, more favorable toward the Mr Deity video and against Atheism+, although you have to look hard to extract any specific logic from the comments.
  • The Mr Deity YouTube video, “Mr Deity and the Hat” that contains the alleged victim-blaming sequence toward the end. There is substantial discussion in the comments thread.
  • A Mr Deity followup video, “Did I Blame the Victim” — with substantial additional discussion in the comments thread. In the video, he claims the original video was not directed at all toward the rape allegation. It was supposedly aimed solely at Myers’ more nebulous followup claim, that the accused individual likes to offer alcohol to women and is “flirty.”

In the midst of this discussion (and throughout the history of the feminism-in-Atheism movement) a number have commented that gender topics simply don’t belong in Atheist, skeptic and free-thinking media. I also remarked that these topics are a distraction from the intellectual subjects that Atheists and skeptics traditionally prefer. This attitude is fine if Atheism, skepticism and free thinking are limited to being  purely intellectual predilections. But over the past decade there has been increased emphasis on Atheism and skepticism as social movements that may displace religion and supernatural thinking in society, and many have argued that some associated social goods may accompany this displacement. From this perspective, topics of social justice are quite central to the notion of Atheism as a social movement and displacement process. Furthermore if Atheists and skeptics continue to organize and meet with increasing frequency, then they will have to handle the practical logistics and dangers associated with those activities. Karen Stollznow discussed the situation in her editorial, “I’m sick of talking about sexual harassment!” which was unfortunately removed from Scientific American’s web site. I think Stollznow’s closing words are simple, direct and should not be controversial:

To avoid becoming sick of talking about sexual harassment we need to feel some empathy for the victims. It may be harder to empathize with a colleague or an acquaintance, so think about how you would feel if this harassment was happening to your wife, husband, daughter, son, brother, sister, mother or father? Then we need to remember our broader responsibility to protect people in our workplace, communities and society. Underestimating the dangers of sexual harassment, and downplaying or ignoring claims, only serves to embolden the harassers. If they get away with sexual harassment, or they don’t even recognize their behavior, they are at risk of doing it again. Let’s not be sick of talking about sexual harassment, but be sick of being silent about it.

For those still reading, at this point I would like to focus on what I consider to be the most cogent arguments surrounding the Myers accusations. They predominantly pertain to the issue of reporting the crime. The following list is my “crystallized” summary of the recent arguments:

  1. The crime should have been reported immediately to the police. Some even claimed that the victim has a civic duty to report the crime. It is also claimed that too much time passed before making the public disclosure, hence the accuser’s motives should be held in doubt. It is also argued that anonymous accusations should not be made. The accuser should identify herself publicly or retract the accusation.
  2. PZ Myers had an obligation to report to the police, not to the world. Implication: whenever rape is disclosed privately and in confidence, the listener should convey that report to the authorities.
  3. The community has no responsibility in this matter. It is strictly for the criminal justice system to handle.

Since these matters all relate to the general theme of reporting, disclosing and prosecuting sexual assault cases, I will now turn to official resources and peer-reviewed literature to help gain a more precise understanding of that topic. My review is by no means comprehensive, but will cover a few of the more informative resources.

There are three dimensions in the subject of sexual assault reporting:

  1. The personal needs and rights of the victim.
  2. Protection of potential future victims.
  3. The desire for retributive justice.

Following Stollznow’s advice, I’ll begin by trying to understand the victim’s perspective. I prefer to consider the issue in terms of costs and benefits, although some have argued that victims do not typically engage in a conscious cost/benefit analysis. Nevertheless I think that a person’s decisions are shaped by an assessment of costs/benefits or risks/rewards, even if the process is subconscious. Additionally, the pejorative nature of the above arguments allows us to address the question of what one should do from alternate perspectives.

Should the victim immediately report to police?

In the United States, there is no legal obligation for survivors to report to the police. Support organizations encourage survivors to make reports and pursue justice, but victims are not blamed if they choose to remain silent. Simply put, an assault is an intrusion upon the victim’s life. Reporting the assault exposes the victim to further emotional, social and possibly professional costs. To overcome these costs, the victim requires a significant confidence that their disclosure will yield a positive outcome (either for themselves or for potential future victims). Unfortunately only a small fraction (26%) of reported rapes lead to arrest, and only 6.5% result in conviction [1]. While reporting the crime is certainly the most desirable decision from the standpoint of global justice, on a personal level it may indeed be a statistically sound decision to remain silent, and the victim is entitled to this choice. So the question of what one ought to do is complex heavily dependent on one’s philosophical basis for moral judgement.

Allen [2] considered the costs and benefits that may influence under-reporting of rape. His study pointed toward the factors that have the greatest weight in victims’ decision making:

Ultimately, the models show relatively weak evidence that nonreporting victims particularly concerned themselves with potential police disinterest in their cases (reason category 2), personal privacy (category 3), or that they preferred to tell individuals other than police about the attack (category 5), although such concerns do speak to issues central to the conceptual analysis of the reporting decision. More compelling evidence indicates that these victims concerned themselves with the likelihood of apprehension (which directly impacts the probability that they will receive presumably valuable legal justice) and with a different kind of personal concern, related to the fear of reprisal from the offender (a direct cost of reporting).

Ahrens et al. [3] found that the most positive reactions occur when the victims first make private disclosures to informal support providers (e.g. friends or family), whereas disclosures to formal supporters (e.g. police or other authorities) more often result in negative reactions (blaming, doubting, and refusing to help). These experiences tend to diminish confidence in the benefits of official reporting.

Lastly, Patterson et al. [4] considered the factors that influence survivors to report and to continue participation in the criminal justice system. Their findings reveal that many survivors are motivated by a moral desire to protect others, and their confidence is impacted positively by having support prior to formally reporting the incident:

The majority of participants identified one of three primary reasons that factored into their initial decisions to report the assault to the police. First, almost half of the survivors reported the rape to the police to prevent their offender from raping other women or themselves. Second, slightly more than one quarter of the survivors were encouraged by other people to report the rape. Third, one quarter of the survivors were not offered the choice of reporting their rapes because other people contacted the police without their permission.

I believe this quick literature survey helps to understand the motivation that would lead a person to delay reporting. Additionally, an anonymous public disclosure addresses the desire to protect future potential victims, which is the chief motivation of many who pursue conventional justice. If the anonymous accuser is concerned about reprisals, then (based on this research) she would face increased risks from formal reporting. However the payoff — protection of others — is arguably achievable without going through the formal process.

So what should the anonymous victim have done? If the allegations are true, then the anonymous disclosure may be the best rational choice. This offends many of us because we wish this wasn’t the most rational choice. In my opinion, our justice system will not be truly just until the “best” choice (formal reporting) is also the most rational choice.

Should PZ Myers forward the report to the police?

No. If PZ wants to be considered a journalist, then double no. In general, third-party heroism makes things worse. According to Patterson [4]:

One quarter of the survivors were not given the choice of making a report to the police. In these situations, other people, primarily family members, contacted the police before the survivors could make their own decisions…. These survivors expressed feeling angry and a loss of control when other people made the decision to report the crime without their consent. Some of these survivors predicted that they would not have reported the rape because they felt ashamed or feared the police would not believe them.

As a general rule, one should not infringe upon the autonomy and self determination of another person.

Does the community have any responsibility?

I don’t know if the community has any specific responsibility to the parties involved, other than to be cautious with judgements. In more general terms, the community has a responsibility to try and create fair, professional environments at future events. Since this is a movement with members and activities and institutions, I think the members do have a responsibility to be aware of social problems that occur within the movement (an in society at large), and to seek constructive solutions that improve inclusiveness and create a safer environment at future events.


[1] “Reporting Rates,” Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accessed August 18, 2013.

[2] W. David Allen, “The Reporting and Underreporting of Rape,” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jan., 2007) (pp. 623-641).

[3] Ahrens, C. E., Campbell, R., Ternier-Thames, N. K., Wasco, S. M. and Sefl, T. (2007), DECIDING WHOM TO TELL: EXPECTATIONS AND OUTCOMES OF RAPE SURVIVORS’ FIRST DISCLOSURES. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31: 38–49.

[4] Patterson, D. and Campbell, R. (2010), Why rape survivors participate in the criminal justice system. J. Community Psychol., 38: 191–205. doi: 10.1002/jcop.20359

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