I've been watching the Atheist/ Skeptical corner of the internet blow up over the weekend, watching this whole little spectacle unfold. Now that it seems to have died down a bit, and some (truly shocking) opinions have brought themselves forward, I feel I can comment on it.
For those that hare unaware of the spat going on across several sites, here's the gist: Rebecca Watson of Skepchick made this video about a conference she had recently spoken at. At about 4:30 into the video, she discusses a situation she encountered at the conference. A man she did not know got into an elevator with her at 4am and asked her to come back to his room with him for coffee, after she had expressed her desire to go to bed. She explains in the video that this approach came across as exceedingly creepy and she discusses how such behavior can/should be avoided in order to not make women feel objectified and more welcome at conferences.
Several other tangential issues came up (including a naming of names at another conference about conflating opinions), but the result was an internet shit-storm. Said storm included Hemant of Friendly posting this, PZ Myers posting this (which brought Richard Dawkins out of the woodwork with some atrocious comments); this was followed by Jen McCreight, PZ, Amanda Marcott, and Phil Plait (whose post lays out the situation spectacularly and calmly) all commenting on why this otherwise not-all-that-significant video became the catalyst for something I've found to be actually a pretty big deal. Even if you do not read any of the other posts, Phil's is a must-read.
The overwhelming negative response has made it quite clear exactly why we have a serious lacking of women in our communities. If a generally well-respected woman who calls out a guy for creepy behavior can expect this sort of negative blow-back, it should be of no surprise if other women feel they would not be welcome.
Whether right or wrong, we live in a society that loves to blame the victim, especially women and girls. Whether right or wrong, this society has taught women and girls to fear for their safety everywhere they go and to be on the look-out for possible predators at all times. Whether right or wrong, society has placed it as the responsibility of those women and girls to not become victims. As much as many women and men would love to change this and work tirelessly to do so, it is still the society in which we live.
That society, that conditioning, is the context in which this encounter took place. A comment on Skepchick asked if rape and sexual assault was really so prevalent that men should keep in mind whether or not they are behaving in potentially threatening ways towards women: The answer is yes, yes it is. Men approaching women can never known if she has been previously attacked. Conversely, women can never know whether the men approaching them mean to harm them. Add to this an enclosed space like an elevator, a sparsely populated hour such as 4am, and yes, such a proposition as coffee can seem creepy or potentially ill-willed.
And the guys (and many women) who act as though these things should not be factors when hitting on someone just don't get it. They don't get that the context of someone hitting on you can be incredibly disconcerting. Richard Dawkins himself equated such an approach to being no more than someone annoyingly chewing gum next to you, which is vastly out of touch. He also asked how one could possibly feel trapped in an elevator. That's like asking how someone can feel trapped in the backseat of a car. The door is right there, you can go ahead and grab the handle... unless there is someone that threatens you and prevents escape.
While the original situation and video really weren't all that significant aside from saying "hey, this behavior is creepy, and you should probably not do that," the fallout is very significant. It has brought many people out of the woodwork and shed light on some truly disturbing mindsets. The reaction to Rebecca's video shows that there is much progress to be made in helping people understand that how you approach someone and the context in which they are approached can make them feel threatened or uncomfortable, regardless of your intentions.
The idea of a woman calling a guy out on being creepy and suggesting men do otherwise should not cause this sort of reaction. It should not have the reaction of "So are we not supposed to hit on women?" and "How dare you get upset at me hitting on you! I should be able to do so, any time and place I please!" It's ridiculous. Her video said nothing of the sort. But keeping in mind the sensitivities of the person you are interested in has less to do with gender equality, and more to do with just being polite and considerate.