CFI Responds on Melody Henlsey Malicious Remarks

A few days ago, I posted a response to io9’s The Great Geek Sexism Debate in order to point out that the interview with Amy Roth failed to mention anything about Dr. Harriett Hall’s “I’m not a Skepchick” shirt, which Amy took issue with. They also erroneously stated that TAM (The Amaz!ng Meeting) has had no anti-harassment policy (they were actually the first skeptic conference to put one in place). I felt both these points were important matters, overlooked by the piece.

Most of the feedback on my post was positive, and many commented (both publicly and privately) that they were glad to see me raise these points. Many remarked that they are afraid of receiving vitriolic responses and malicious labels for voicing any critiques or disagreements with the opinions and methods certain self-proclaimed feminists have applied to the issue of women in atheism, skepticism, and freethought communities.

Two women who work for feminist values within these communities chimed in with responses that used gender-based stereotypes. At the very least it was mean-spirited name calling…despite the fact that the article was denouncing exactly this type of behaviour.

Skepchick Amy Roth, of Surlyramics, reduces me to a vain shoe-obsessed stereotype, and Melody Hensley, CFI-DC Executive Director and organizer for The Women in Secularism conference, implies that I further my career as a professional skeptic by garnering attention and approval of men.

CFI’s Ronald Lindsay responded to me about the issue, pointing out that Hensley doesn’t speak on behalf of the CFI in her personal twitter account, and that they disavow the implication in her remarks.

Both Hensley and Roth deleted their tweets, without apology, and have blocked my account. While I wouldn’t hold CFI or Skepchick responsible for what their members say on their personal accounts, I do believe those who present themselves as activists and community leaders should hold themselves to higher standards than using personal attacks.

This is not a matter of “tone trolling”. The irresponsible manner in which the terms misogynist, rape apologist, gender traitor, “chill girl,” “sister punisher,” and accusations of MRA affiliations are having a negative impact on the issue. The malicious language is harming people; those the insults are directed towards and victims afraid their reports of harassment won’t be taken seriously.

When women want to speak out against the hyperbole, misinformation, and unfairness surrounding the issue, they aren’t dismissing other women’s experience. It’s not a matter of “I had a good experience and that trumps your bad one”. I can believe there is a problem with harassment at events while also believing the online narrative is painting an exaggerated picture of these events if some women aren’t attending because they believe it’s outright dangerous.

The consequence of the belittling language and treatment, like Hensley and Roth demonstrated towards me, is that many women conclude that they too will be subject to intimidation if they are outspoken–even if they communicate their disagreements rationally and tactfully.

It’s unacceptable and it needs to stop. When you see it happening, I encourage you to speak up. If you keep to being calm and rational against the vitriol, in the long run, you can’t lose.


17 Responses

  1. Wisely Neutral Says:

    I’m sorry, Sara. I think you are wonderful. But I have a lot of respect for Amy’s accomplishments over the last few months too. I am not going to speak up, mainly because the only way to come out on top of this dumb massacre is not to get into it in the first place.

  2. Sara E.M. Says:

    @Wisely Neutral: I have much respect for Amy too, and I wouldn’t make the mistake of tossing her contributions aside because she made fun of me. I don’t want others to either.

    I just think it’s valuable for people to speak up when they see something like this happening so that it’s clear we don’t value this kind of discourse.

  3. bluharmony Says:

    Whatever Amy’s accomplishments may be, they don’t excuse the way she’s treated Sara — another woman in the community. You can’t fight sexism by being sexist, and you can’t fight hate by being hateful.

    Sara, thank you for speaking up on this issue. Many of us appreciate it and understand the courage it takes to do so.

  4. Joey Haban Says:

    It’s absolutely possible to support someone’s work and yet object to certain actions. Lack of understanding this (sometimes deliberately) has constantly been a problem here. Many people fully supported Rebecca, Amy, et al on their position on the issues; it was the execution that was objected to, and those objections were interpreted as “You should just shut up about it.” (Certainly there were many people saying exactly that, and plenty of jerks and trolls…but there were also many allies who suddenly and unfairly found themselves enemies.)

    Women who complain they are being mocked and harassed by other women really don’t have a leg to stand on when they engage in that behavior themselves. It doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t also good work going on.

    The skeptics I respect the most practice what they preach, and when they don’t, they own up to it. None of which has happened here. Personally I’m taking it as a reminder to be better about that myself, so I believe there’s a number of reasons why it’s good to discuss this.

  5. Hugo Says:

    I just wanted to say, well done. This behaviour is completely and utterly outrageous. This is just naked malice.

    I just wanted to add that you are in very good company if you refuse to go along with this. From what I’ve seen the majority of women skeptics are proud, intelligent women who do not want to be represented by these noisy twits.

  6. Karla Porter Says:

    Knowing how to use a keyboard and the Internet doesn’t guarantee effective communication like being an atheist doesn’t guarantee interpersonal skills. “We are the media” has its good and bad. There is a lot of immature borderline type behavior going on in this community which I don’t truly view as a ‘community’ – unless you want to consider dysfunctional a key attribute.

  7. Geek Goddess Says:

    Joey, your first sentence covers a great deal of the problem.

  8. Shane P. Brady Says:


    I like your point about “reminder to be better about that myself”. Skepticism for me often starts in the mirror.

  9. Mike C. Says:

    Y’know, sometimes I think a simple follow-up tweet along the lines of “Good grief, I don’t know what got into me. I’m sorry for that remark, it was out of line,” would work wonders. We all get carried away from time to time; it’s human. Acknowledge it, apologize and move on. I don’t hold with trying to erase the evidence, pretending nothing ever happened, and refusing to apologize.

  10. Torquil Macneil Says:

    The aggression of Roth and Hensley in response to such cool-headed and fair comments is astonishing. I think that certain participants in this row are too emotionally committed to it to look for solutions in good conscience, sometimes I think that, despite their expressed indignation and performed outrage, are just enjoying it too much to seek a resolution.

    Still, well done for plugging away in the name or reason against those who seem to prefer chaos and demonologies.

  11. warriormom Says:

    I know women that are AFRAID to speak up… because basically they will be treated as Sara has been. I know women that have been driven from the skeptic movement because of their fear of association with the skepchicks. Professionally they did not want to be associated with them. Speak out? And have your real name googled to come out as “X hates women” and your potential employer go “I don’t need to hire someone with this controversy around her.” It’s a two way street, being involved in this in any way is a no win situation unless you are self employed like Amy or Rebecca Watson. They can professionally afford to have what pops up about them on google pop up. Amy and Melody are no different than Dawkins. But his accomplishments did not keep people from demanding he be removed from the speakers at TAM. I think Amy has done a lot of good, and I think Amy and Melody should offer a heartfelt apology. HOW HARD IS THAT? Simply “Hey that was wrong”. you know how I know they think it was wrong? They TOOK THE TWEETS DOWN! If you take a tweet down, you should apologize for it. If don’t think an apology is needed then leave it up. Taking it down means NOTHING, a simply “I’m sorry” or a simply “You know that was over the line” or “I didn’t mean for this to hurt you like it did, and I’m sorry about that” (they claim it was not intended for Sara for which I say “Lies are not what the skeptic community is about. It’s clear you were pissed at her and you simply wrote a few emotional tweets. Apologize like an adult. In your heart and head you know you wrote those to hurt her as you were upset.”
    People will say “Dawkins did not apologize”. Well if Melody and Amy want to base their behavior on Dawkins then they have picked an odd role model. The point is not to be “one of the boys” it’s the be different, human, inclusive and above the pettiness of the average skeptic (or so I have read when looking into A+ and the “new wave”). The new wave has to be honest, do I want AMy taken off the speakers list, no. Do I think Sara is going to be VERY VERY VERY uncomfortable at CSI with the two of them there? YES! It will be Amy’s experience at TAM, only Amy and her gang will be leading it against Sara. Unless, Sara gets an honest apology and Amy and Melody make a genuine effort to make her feel welcome. No “It was done to me, so why cant I do it”. People dont’ want the same old same old…they expect A+ to be the NICE group that is lead by people that don’t engage in this behavior. Show me, please show me AMy and Melody that you can indeed set a new standard, give an apology (you know you were being catty when you wrote it) and give the world an example of how skepticism and atheism CAN be. LEAD!

  12. Mary Says:

    I just want everyone to know that elevator-girl and sexist-girl have very nearly chased me away from the community. As stubborn as I am, I KNOW that they must have pushed other less-stubborn women (and probably men) out of the atheist community. Their coordinated attacks on anyone criticizing them on various websites can be vicious and overwhelming.

    In short, Watson and friends, if you care at all about the atheist or feminist community, you need to take a hard look at your actions. You’ve caused a lot of harm to both communities. I hope you can grow up and quit being so hateful and hostile. Otherwise, put a sock in it or throw out your computer or something. Don’t rejoin the community until you can act like an adult.

  13. bluharmony Says:

    It is also important to note that the “feminists” actively try to destroy women’s careers via Google searches, often by writing blog posts containing significant “errors” and “implications” about them. The point above about needing to be self-employed to stand-up to them or be associated with the Skepchicks is great.

    Another great point made above about apologizing rather than erasing the comment, making excuses for it, and blaming others, and calling Sara anti-woman in response to criticism.

  14. Susan Elliott Says:

    “I can believe there is a problem with harassment at events while also believing the online narrative is painting an exaggerated picture of these events if some women aren’t attending because they believe it’s outright dangerous.”

    The most vocal of the feminist movement gaslighting the rest of us? Say it ain’t so!

  15. A Nobody Says:

    Being calm and rational doesn’t win arguments with demagogues. No amount of civil discussion will get through to people who regularly employ vitriol, hate, and irresponsible taunts and insults. You cannot win, because they will not let you. They will persist in their stupidity because it’s advantageous to them.

    Welcome to New Feminism, people: religion without a god, and all the stupidity, intolerance, and corruption religion entails. These people have so little credibility. The kindest thing they could do for their own posterity is shut their mouths.

  16. A Lowly Apprentice Says:

    I think it is important to note that this type of behavior was lauded when it was atheist vs theist. The snark and easily misinterpreted wit was/is a mainstay in the arsenal of Watson and many others. It was this sort of behavior and comrade that helped the atheist and skeptic community bond. In many respects the issues surrounding gender emotionally supersede that of atheism inside the skeptic community. People notice this and the obvious hypocrisy that often accompanies one’s beliefs not being used faithfully across the board.

    I’m fairly certain that many women that have joined forces or support Watson et al are tired of policing themselves and are realizing that what they once considered fun or cathartic is not in-line with their professed beliefs. I don’t know about everybody else but I want to live in a world of discourse that at times involves some sexist language when used in jest or to make a point extra sharp. However, when used during serious matters it is probably unwise and is just tacky.

    This is all very tiring to be honest. I’m tired, you are tired, we are all tired. Someone says there is an elephant in the room when I think it is just one or two jerks. People want cultural change and that is what they will get. I don’t think force majeure is what is needed to eject an elephant that is really a couple jerks.

    People should be the change they wish to see.

  17. Melody Hensley – Executive Director CFI-DC « grey lining Says:

    […] of the most frequent female targets of Hensley’s malice is Sara Mayhew – with some pretty classy examples here. Her response to Hensley is worth quoting in its entirety as it covers most bases of why Hensley […]

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