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This post was written for the Carnival of Aces, which this month has the theme of asexuality and religion/atheism. Content note: the blockquotes below have major ace hate and rape threats.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I was an atheist activist before working in asexual activism. That means I keep close track of atheist news and discourse. Someone once told me that it was nice to have me around, so I can keep my ear on the ground, see how atheists are doing with regard to asexuality. I have mostly positive things to say…
…That is, if I confine myself to talking about the atheists that I read and hang out with. But there’s a dark side. Over the past few years, the atheist movement, the giant that it is, has split into a feminist faction and an anti-feminist faction. I, being in the feminist faction, have seen many positive changes. But these changes are caused by the evaporation of the anti-feminists, who rather than disappearing, coalesced into a looming horrorterror.
And even if you’re not an atheist, you might have interacted with this faction already.
Have you ever heard of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs)? Perhaps you’ve seen this recent incel blogger, giving advice on how to avoid being trapped by an asexual partner. Or if you have a longer memory, you might remember Heartiste:
Maybe Jenni really is clinically asexual. Maybe her brain is missing a few synapses. I can abide that possibility. Or maybe, she feels no sexual attraction because all she dates are betas. In which case, one date with an insensitive jerk who isn’t an uuuuunderstanding wet noodle should clear her condition right up.
You might also remember this brief thing from The Amazing Atheist (an atheist MRA vlogger with 600k subscribers):
I am nearly 100% convinced that at least a large portion of the people who self-identify as asexual are lying. I wish I had a research institute, because my hypothesis would actually be very easy to prove or disprove.
Maybe, lucky you, you’ve never seen any of these before. But you’ve probably seen similar attitudes echoed by other people.
It’s easy to dismiss MRAs as an extremist group, a vocal minority, especially when we look at it from our Tumblr bubble, where the main things we complain about are other social justice people doing it wrong. But in tracking atheist news, I end up hearing a lot about the larger manosphere. It’s not just MRAs, there’s a whole cluster of groups like MGTOWs, PUAs, anti-PUAs, Incels, HBDs, and neo-reactionaries.1 And of course there are many more people who are none of the above, instead expressing a more nuanced and individualized hostility towards feminism.
What you may not realize, is that MRAs are a secular movement.2 It’s not a straightforward connection, but we do know most of them are atheists–although not necessarily part of the atheist movement per se. We know they take a borrow a lot of rhetoric from the atheist movement, like the scientific hyperskepticism and anti-authoritarianism. And, when we look at the atheist movement, there are an awful lot of anti-feminists around.
That’s really the whole story of the atheist movement for the past few years. It’s the slowly dawning horror that anti-feminists (of many sorts) compose a significant part of us. This first became major news in 2011, when Rebecca Watson mentioned offhand an uncomfortable situation where someone had propositioned her in an elevator at an atheist conference–triggering a major harassment campaign. Ever since, there’s been a long string of major controversies.3 This is what kills atheism as a coherent movement. It’s nothing to do with the difficulty of herding cats, or being insufficiently respectful to religions, and it’s everything to do with gender.
What does this mean for the asexual community, a sexual minority community which is predominantly made of women and non-binary people, a community which is predominantly non-religious?
For me, it’s like wandering underneath two giants doing battle. One of the giants is good and the other evil. All I can do is cheer one on and try not to get stepped on. I feel like I’m being melodramatic, overly black and white, like this is just some flame war on the internet, a tempest in a teapot. But then, I remember how it was before the split, when all the feminists and anti-feminists were still mixed together, and it wasn’t entirely positive. Things are better today, with many feminist atheists making mentions of asexuality wherever appropriate.4 Plenty of asexual atheists already have their own voices, without being forced to talk about asexuality all the time. But at the same time, things are worse, because, you know, that evil giant over there.
But let’s say you’re a more typical asexual–a non-religious woman who does not participate in the atheist movement. You probably don’t even see the feminist atheists. What you see are all these science geeks who argue asexuality can’t exist because SCIENCE. You see redditors scoffing at asexuality as another Tumblr fad. You see atheists telling you that the Christians must love you. These things may not seem connected, but they’re all coming from a similar political context: secular anti-feminism.
Or maybe asexuality doesn’t even need to come into it. You just hear about how the atheist movement harasses its women, or otherwise mistreats them.
This might give you a negative impression of the atheist movement. I can say, as an insider, that your impression is entirely justified. I’m so sorry.
1. MGTOWs are “men going their own way”, men who choose not to have relationships with women, because supposedly feminists ruined everything. PUAs are pickup artists, people who exchange dubious tips on how to get sex from women. Anti-PUAs and Incels (involuntary celibates) generally agree with PUA goals, but think the tactics don’t work. HBD means “human biodiversity”, basically a “rational racism” movement. Neoreactionaries are basically libertarian anti-democracy geeks, a small group that is only notable because it splintered off from well-known rationalist community LessWrong. In general, a good resource (biased in the correct direction) to learn about these groups is the RationalWiki.
2. Note that there are also pro-feminist and religious men’s movements. But for some reason the particular men’s movement that dominates on the internet is the secular anti-feminist one.
3. I’d also like to point out that there’s a parallel feminist war in video games, which is getting much bigger than the one in atheism. There’s even a significant overlap. For instance, we have Thunderf00t, who used to be well-known for his videos attacking creationism, but is now known for attacking atheist activist Rebecca Watson and games critic Anita Sarkeesian. He’s not the only one like that.