If you happen to be at involved at all in the organized skepticism community, then you likely know about “elevatorgate.” Basically it’s a rather unfortunate series of events involving Rebecca Watson, Richard Dawkins and others. I’m intentionally not linking to the quotes (you can find them easily on Google if you so choose) but I will paraphrase the situation:
Watson was at a hotel for some conference she spoke at. She stayed out late, going to the bar or whatever. Then, at 4 AM she went back to her room, taking an elevator. Some guy from the conference was on the elevator. He tried to strike up a conversation. He said he found her interesting and suggested she might want to come back to her room for a cup of coffee. She declined. They exited the elevator and that was that.
Now according to Watson this made her very uncomfortable. It was an elevator, which is the quintessential (if not factually supported) place for rape to occur. She was a woman and he a man and our society is one in which women are most often the victim of sexual assault and men most often the aggressors. It was forward and the act of inviting a woman back to your room in a hotel has some obvious undertones (even if it didn’t necessarily mean anything other than he actually wanted to have some coffee.)
Richard Dawkins took Watson to task on this with some rather sarcastic comments which seem to be intended to point out that she really wasn’t a victim of anything and in a world where women are having their genitals cut in Africa, can’t drive cars in much of the Middle East, are sold into slavery in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and where many places still operate in a near-feudal manner, Watson is not really in that bad of shape and should just get over the fact that someone asked her an awkward question in an elevator, which probably was not the best venue.
What followed was a lot of really far-out feminists coming to Watson’s defense and attacking Dawkins. They said he didn’t understand because he was a heterosexual Caucasian male from a privilege background, while Watson is a … heterosexual Caucasian female from a privilege background. They repeatedly said how men “Just don’t get it” – that women live in a world of terror where every guy they encounter is a potential rapist and where the very act of making a social invitation means they must fear that you are planning on assaulting them. Some either didn’t get Dawkin’s sarcasm and disgust for the culture of victim-hood that has permeated western society or thought he was somehow putting down women who actually do suffer horrible acts of violence by asking those who were asked to coffee to grow some thicker skin.
Of course, I’m a man so I can’t ever understand this. Somehow others can know what I can understand but I can’t understand what they can. Somehow they know what my background is and my life experiences but I don’t know there experiences. And also, apparently every woman knows “what it’s like to be a woman” because there is only one single experience of being a woman, it’s not like, they are all different or anything, or like there is no one ‘anywoman’ who can tell you what the experience is for all XX chromosome members of humanity.
Oh and if you see a paradox here, that just proves you’re already a bigot and a rapist.
But before going into this any further, there’s a question nobody seems to have asked: DO RAPES ACTUALLY HAPPEN IN HOTEL ELEVATORS?
Sure, they have happened. In the history of human race and the billions of hotel stays that have been made, they have happened. But lets get something straight: people have also been struck by meteors on at least two occasions.
As Wattson suggested, if you Google “Hotel Elevator Assault,” you will find plenty of pages, but then take a closer look. Many of them are about how to avoid it, some of them are about her and others simply have all three words together in the same page, such as “Kobe’s accuser said after the assault, she went to the hotel elevator” or “The alleged attacker was seen on a security camera exiting the elevator on the 11th floor.”
But what about actual occurrences of women being raped or assaulted in hotel elevators. Is it common? Sure, it’s commonly feared. People fear dying because of nuclear power plant accidents too. People fear having their throat slit by an intruder in their bed at night. Yet these are pretty small risks.
Sexual assault: fears versus reality
While sexual assaults are some of the most common crimes to occur, the vast majority do not fit the popular image that most worry about. Being raped out of the blue by a stranger in a public location with little or no previous contact is one of the rarest types of sexual assault. An even rarer type of sexual assault is home-invasion sexual assault. Yet these are the types of assaults most prominent and which people tend to worry about most. The fear of a masked stranger breaking into one’s home and assaulting them in their bed is common. Yet such events are amongst the least common crimes.
At least 75% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a person known to the victim. Often a former intimate partner, friend or acquaintance and occasionally a family member. Even when the victim does not have a previous relationship with the perpetrator, most rapes assaults still involve some level of voluntary contact or interaction prior to the assault. Many are so-called “date rape” assaults. Others involve the victim engaging in some level of intimate contact consensually but then having the perpetrator continue past clearly stated boundaries or becoming forceful when the victim attempts to stop the encounter. In other cases, the rape is defined as being “alcohol-related,” where the victim has become too intoxicated to provide consent or resist.
Why a hotel elevator is a very unlikely place for a sexual assault to occur:
- All modern hotel elevators have security cameras and intercoms. At hotels, it is routine for cameras to be monitored by security. If an assault were to happen, it is very likely that someone would come to the aid of the person being assaulted quickly. Even if they did not, the presence of cameras has a very strong deterrent effect.
- An elevator really does not provide much opportunity to keep a person captive. The average elevator ride is less than a minute long. Elevator doors can open at any time should the elevator be summoned by someone on a floor it is passing. There is no control over who greets the elevator. For an assailant it’s impossible to know if the elevator door is about the open to a group of security guards or to be summoned by a group of off duty police officers headed down to a law enforcement convention.
- The stop switch cannot be used to stop an elevator and hold it indefinitely – this is a matter of some level of urban mythology. In most elevator designs, it is impossible for a rider to suddenly stop the elevator between floors and hold it in the location, thus entrapping a passenger. Most newer elevators have “keyed” stop switches – the switch cannot be operated by a rider in the elevator unless they have a key.On nearly all elevators, the stop switch activates an alarm, which, in a location like a hotel, would alert security to the incident in the elevator.On some elevators the stop switch has been reprogrammed such that it does not simply cause the elevator to stop, but rather will stop the elevator from ascending and cause it to stop on the nearest floor. On others, it causes the elevator to stop and return to the ground floor in an unpowered descent. This is a safety feature which is employed by elevators to allow passengers to exit in the event of a power failure. The elevator will reach the ground floor by gravity alone.Even in circumstances where the stop button does cause the elevator to stop between floors, it’s not indefinite. The elevator can always be restarted by hitting any other button. Actual examples of the elevator stop switch being activated.
- Escaping an elevator is not difficult. It will stop at a floor, usually within less than a minute and making it stop sooner can be done by hitting other floor buttons. On some elevators, the “door open” button causes it to stop at whatever floor it is closest to.
- Escaping a hotel after committing an assault is nearly impossible, especially if the assault is somewhere like an elevator, where exiting requires leaving the victim (potentially screaming for help) in an uncontrolled and public area to exit either through the hotel lobby or through guest floors. Avoiding capture is even less likely for those staying at the hotel, who would have had their identity recorded.
Rape is a crime of violence. It’s also a crime of control. It requires a place where the assailant can take control of the victim and have some level of comfort, knowing that the act will not be interrupted. Many such assaults take place in residences. Others take place in vehicles. Both of these places provide the setting necessary to gain and maintain control.
A hotel elevator does not and therefore is a very unlikely location for a sexual assault.
Rape in elevators:
Elevators are not a very common place for sexual assaults, but they certainly do happen, although this is usually limited to elevators serving certain types of locations.
There are cases of women being raped in elevators or followed by men out of an elevator and then quickly raped, but very very few happened at a place like a hotel, which is generally continuously inhabited and not secluded. The vast majority happened at elevators that are relatively isolated at times when there would not be many people around. These include such places as parking garages and subway stations at night. Others have occurred at apartment complexes, where there were few using elevators or walking around at night, in the early morning or during working hours.
Other cases of elevators being used as locations for rape or sexual assault involve elevators that are not generally open to the public. Workplace assaults have occurred in service elevators or elevators cabs that are out of service and sitting idle in the subbasement of buildings. Cleaning crews or late night workers have been assaulted in elevators at office buildings after hours, when few were around and the elevators were not being used or monitored.
Hotel elevators and other busy public elevators have been the location where other crimes were purported. They are a popular location for pickpockets. Muggings and robberies on elevators are also known to happen. They are usually very fast. The assailant pulls a knife or other weapon on a person in the elevator and runs away with their wallet or jewelry as soon as the door opens, often fleeing out of the hotel lobby.
Bonafied Incidents of Women Being Sexually Assaulted in Hotel Elevators:
Confirmed cases in which a woman was actually assaulted, raped or attempted to be raped in the elevator of a hotel by a stranger. I was unable to find any statistics that listed this as a location where rapes commonly occurred, so I had to resort to searching legal documents and news sources to try to find every example I could of rapes and sexual assaults in hotel elevators. After three days I couldn’t track down very many!
1976 – A woman was stabbed and sexually assaulted by a man at the Marc Plaza in Milwaukee. She first encountered her assailant on an elevator she had taken from the hotel’s parking garage. The actual assault did not take place on the elevator, but rather, happened after the man followed her out from the elevator.
1984 – A woman was forcibly abducted by four men who accosted her in an elevator at an Atlantic city hotel and dragged her to one of the rooms in the hotel where she was raped. She escaped after four hours.
1987 – A 14 year old girl was “molested” in a Virginia Beach hotel elevator. No further details available.
1988 – An actress was assaulted in a Texas hotel. The assailant pulled down the front of her evening dress and tried to further sexually assault her, but the door opened and hotel guests came to her aid, restraining the man until police arrived.
1989 – In a highly publicized incident, a Chicago man robbed and raped a woman in the elevator of the Hilton by pulling a handgun on her and stopping the elevator between floors. Most elevators will not stop in this manner and if they do, hitting a button will get them to move again. However, he was able to stop her from doing anything because he was armed with a gun. The same man had attacked two other Chicago women. Of the three women he attacked, only one was raped in the elevator. Likely because of the limits of most elevators to be held in place, the perpetrator raped another woman in a vacant room, while another of his victims was only robbed but not sexually assaulted.
1995 - A man was arrested for attempting to rape a woman in a hotel elevator in Lake Tahoe, although she managed to get away.
2005 - A woman staying at the Omni Hotel in Washington DC was assaulted by a man she had met at the hotel’s bar. Part of the assault occurred in an elevator, although the elevator was not where the assault began. The man assaulted and wrestled the woman on the ground floor of the hotel near the elevator area. He then pushed her into one of the elevators when the door opened. The hotel normally had three guards on duty in the lobby area and monitoring cameras which would have prevented the incident from happening. The victim thus successfully sued the hotel for negligence as they did not have their full security detail available on the night of the incident.
2006 – A Florida man attempted to sexually assault a 12 year old girl in a hotel elevator, but she got away. He was captured shortly thereafter.
2011 – A guest of the Pittsburgh Airport Hyatt was assaulted and stabbed in an elevator. It appears that the perpetrator had intended to sexually assault her, but she got away and received only non-life-threatening wounds.
That is twelve cases of women being assaulted on elevators at hotels, in a period of almost 40 years. Many of these cases the victim managed to get away or the assault didn’t get very far. Granted, it’s possible that there could be others I did not find, and most of the sources I could find were English-language, so that limits the area in question. Still, it this clearly is not something that happens every week or even every year.
Perhaps just as importantly, not a single example can be found which actually fits the MO and circumstances of the situation Rebecca found herself and the fears expressed – that an attack would actually happen, that this would happen in the elevator, that the attacker would managed to successfully restrain or assault the victim and that this would all happen with a single attacker, but after some kind of initial approach that did not involve violence, such as trying to flirt with the victim and being declined.
One might counter by saying that even an attempted but failed attack would be a horrible and traumatic experience, and while that’s true, the actual chances of it happening are still extremely remote. By comparison, in the United States alone, more than 1,300 individuals lost their lives due to lightning strikes between 1980 and 1995 and tens of thousands more were severely injured by lightning.
To put the rarity of this in greater context, examples of “Man Bites Dog” since the year 2000:
I should add, I did not spend nearly as much time tracking down stories of men biting dogs. I did, however, have to limit myself to the years 2000-2011, because there were just too damn many of them to list otherwise!
So, in conclusion, if you want something to worry about, don’t bother worrying about being raped in a hotel elevator – worry that your dog might be bitten by a man. It’s a far more common occurrence!
In the end, it’s just not a very reasonable risk and women should not panic if they are asked to coffee on an elevator. It might be a dumb place to ask a woman for coffee, because it would somewhat put her on the spot (but how many of us haven’t asked something dumb at least once). Still, being flirted with on a hotel elevator should not cause a feeling of terror.
It’s a little sad that a self-described skeptic would have such irrational fears and such a victim complex.
This entry was posted on Sunday, July 10th, 2011 at 5:26 pm and is filed under Amazing Meeting, Announcements, Bad Science, Culture, Good Science, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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