I happened across this debate accidentally tonight, taken several hours to wade through it all.
Seems to me the point is to take seriously what people tell you about their experience, and to use as much empathy as you can muster to try to understand what they're telling you. This applies to the elevator man, Rebecca herself, other commenters, Dawkins...
Even if elevator man really did
want coffee, Rebecca had to to respond carefully in case his reaction wasn't civil (she couldn't know what he really wanted, she didn't know him). Women often do have to respond to unsolicited requests carefully, thoughtfully, empathically - sometimes a direct refusal offends and results in being attacked. I believe only a minority of men would ever attack women - but because some do, and many women have experience of being attacked (socially, emotionally, physically) and know how bad it could possibly get, they have to guard against it. That doesn't mean all women believe all men are rapists - but most girls are raised to behave/dress/speak in ways that won't attract attacks - men, on the whole, aren't raised to have to think about that. That's the privilege Rebecca and others have written about e.g. https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/
Women learn early the necessity of taking sensible precautions against attack. This is true of most societies, and particularly true (in my view) of societies where women are put in the position of responsibility for men's sexual urges - this is more obvious where women are veiled on the pretext that seeing them would arouse men, but is also true in Western culture where what women wear is (still) used as an excuse for assault: "she was asking for it". Many veiled women claim the veil protects them from precisely the kind of proposition Rebecca experienced with elevator man, and from Dawkins' attack. If the "atheist community" is to make any headway to combat these (religious and derogatory) views of women, taking seriously what Rebecca initially highlighted would be a good start.
Men, on the whole, aren't really aware of there being any need for those precautions and dismiss them as "silly" when they are challenged by them: "I don't think it matters so you, little girl/stupid woman, should just shut up about it". Some men, using empathy, do
get this stuff - especially (in my experience) those with friends and family who have been attacked, or who become aware that their loved women/girl-folk are vulnerable to their behaviours they realise they have had - fathers often talk about how having a daughter changes how they feel about women. The thought/question: "if your girlfriend/sister/mother/wife told you she'd had this experience and felt uncomfortable, what would you think?" can be useful (though sometimes the seriousness of the thought process is too much for some men, so they dismiss it, shake their heads, and go back to tell women to "stop being silly").
Dawkins' extraordinary initial response was equivalent to the "can't you take a joke" get-out that lots of people use when they don't want to respect someone else's views or take seriously what they're saying. Of course genital mutilation is appalling, but it's on a continuum with Rebecca's experience. Genital mutilation is sometimes entered into voluntarily because of cultural pressure, girls and women can really believe that it's necessary (for their honour, their family, etc) to submit to it, even welcome it, because of societal norms. Same goes - in a very different way, obviously - to being propositioned in an elevator. Women are suppose to be flattered by advances, whether for coffee or sex. Some men - as Rebecca's presentation showed in the vile email screenshot she showed - want to use sex to punish women for not submitting. Women live in this climate all the time
- it's not easy to ignore, thought some manage it, sometimes by capitulating to it (hence voluntary clitoral excisions).
Some of this is in the same area of privilege as rich people slumming it and thinking they know how it feels to be poor, or blithely offering an ignorant solution e.g. "let them eat cake". Telling women their experience and self-protecting strategies are silly really is ignorant.
The people who are saying that because men and women sometimes fancy each other and want to get it together are smoke-screening - if there was any mutuality in the situation, none of this debate would have happened.
The women's movement in the 1970s went through these same arguments (yes, I'm that old) and I expect they'll go round and round until empathy becomes an evolved trait in all humans - or until the end of the world, whichever comes first. It would be nice if attacking someone for turning down an advance became something that stopped happening, but a long evolutionary lag, long after the trait became innate, would be required before anyone stopped being wary and careful.
Rebecca's suggestion/request to men - "Please don't do that" - is as mild as it can be, and still there's a storm! Whatever else has gone on since (I know very little about the atheist conference scene or related blogs) we might imagine that some of the voices in response are raised so loud and angry because nerves have been touched. One of those nerves, I believe, is the privilege that many men enjoy, not having to think about this stuff. Saying "it's silly, nothing really happened, it's not important" (or as important and visible as genital mutilation) is a defence against having to recognise the experience of another person, a woman (and it seems to come with a slight hint of wait-until-you-have-something-really-painful-to-complain-about).
It would be great not to have to think about any of it, for it really to be
irrelevant and silly - but until the whole continuum of women's subordination is resolved, what it feels like for this particular woman to be tired, on her way to bed, feeling cornered in a an elevator at 4am, and asked "for coffee" by a man she doesn't know, is very relevant, and absolutely not silly.