Monday, March 10, 2014

Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, in which I imagine explaining asexuality to an atheist audience and atheism to an asexual audience, as a tool to explore intersectionality. Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

When I first became aware of the atheist and skeptical movements, they were the only social movements I was really familiar with.  But to really understand what's going on, it helps to participate in at least one other social movement for comparison's sake.  Here I compare the history of asexual and atheist movements over the last decade.

A brief overview

I can trace asexual communities to the HHA mailing list in the late 90s, and then the AVEN forum in 2001.  On its front page, AVEN defined "asexual" as "someone who does not experience sexual attraction", framing asexuality as an orientation, rather than a dislike of sex or a political stance against sex (as it had been framed by some other communities).  At first this definition was only a guideline, but as AVEN grew, it solidified into the universally accepted definition.  AVEN was by far the biggest asexual community for a long period of time.  Only in recent years (since 2011 or so) has Tumblr emerged as a major alternative community.

To speak of the atheist community history is to reveal my biases.  Even if I sample from many atheist communities, it is but a small corner.  What I know: Apparently galvanized by 9/11, there were several bestselling atheist books in 2004-2006.  Wired published an article in 2006 which profiled several of the authors (sometimes called the four horsemen), and coined the phrase "new atheism" (a label that has always met mixed reception).  In 2007-2011 I remember that the biggest ongoing dispute among blogs was the so-called "framing wars".  The issue was, are atheists too angry, and do they need to frame themselves more diplomatically?  But in 2011, there was "Elevatorgate", which caused a much bigger divide between atheists who are more or less feminist.

There are some interesting parallels.  Both had seeds planted in 2001 (9/11 for atheists, the founding of AVEN for asexuals).  Both grew in response to media attention around 2004-2006 (bestselling books for atheists, major TV appearances for asexuals).  Both communities are fundamentally part of the internet age.  And since 2011, each community is involved in a sort of bipolar split (the feminist schism of internet atheism, and the tumblr/AVEN split for asexuality).

A difference in size

The most obvious difference is that the atheist community is far larger and more fractious than the asexual community.  Among the consequences:
  • Atheists have much more offline activism and community building.  In my experience, many atheists offline aren't even aware of the major discussions among internet atheists, whereas many asexuals offline are so aware of the internet communities that it's common to exchange screen-names at meetups.
  • Kerfuffles among atheists are far nastier and more common than anything I've ever seen in asexual communities.  I often think the biggest kerfuffles in asexual communities are ho-hum.
  • Asexual communities have been much more coherent than atheist communities.  The history of modern asexuality is primarily the history of one large forum, plus a few offshoots. Modern atheist history consists of literally thousands of blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, forums, offline groups, and who knows what else.  The asexual community is the unusual one here; I don't know of any other queer identity which has ever been so centralized.
External pressures cause internal struggles

It seems laughable now, but in 2008, the atheist "framing wars" were a big deal.  A lot of people felt that atheist writers weren't being sufficiently diplomatic towards religious people, independently of whether the atheist writers were right on the matters of substance.  Many social movements deal with the "tone argument", but I've never seen it fleshed out in such depth as on atheist blogs.  Why was this such a big deal?

My explanation is that it came from external pressure on atheists.  Atheists are stereotyped as angry.  This simple stereotype causes a cascade of conflict.  Some atheists proudly embody the stereotype, rebuking the idea that anger is wrong.  Some atheists are not very angry, but thought to be angry anyway.  Some atheists cringe at other atheists' anger, because they're afraid of reinforcing the stereotype.

A loose parallel in asexual communities was the conflict over definitions.  The primary external pressure on asexuality is the way people erase and delegitimize it.  People inside the community think that only if they have the right definition and present it the right way, they could relieve some of this pressure.  In the early 2000s, there was an alternative community to AVEN, called the Official Asexual Society.  This community held to a stricter definition of asexuality, requiring members to not like sex or masturbation, and for this to be reflected in a history of abstinence.

As AVEN hit mainstream news in 2004, it became clear that the stricter definition was not an effective path to legitimacy.  The Official Asexual Society changed its name to the Official Nonlibidoist Society (because "asexual" had been soiled by AVEN's mainstream attention), and it eventually died in 2007.  This led to another cascade of conflict, as the former members of the Official Nonlibidoist Society moved to AVEN and brought along very negative attitudes towards sex, but that's another story.

Social justice divisions

"Elevatorgate" describes an incident in which atheist activist Rebecca Watson was propositioned on an elevator.  Later in a vlog, she mentioned the incident and said, "Guys, don't do that."  This led to a lot of backlash and counter-backlash.  Entire blogs and forums arose dedicated to hating Rebecca Watson.  Most prominently, Richard Dawkins dismissed her problem as unserious by comparing it to the plight of Muslim women.

There had been plenty of arguments over feminism before, but I knew this one was a big deal when the offline atheist groups started talking about it.  Elevatorgate is widely regarded as the beginning of a divided community.  Not many people talk about the elevator incident anymore, but the lines are still drawn, and feminism and social justice are bigger sources of conflict and bitterness than they ever used to be.

By comparison, the "conflict" between asexuals on Tumblr and AVEN is not really a conflict at all.  The main difference between the communities is just the format: tumblrs vs forums.  But more differences spontaneously appear; Tumblr is reputedly more social justice-y than AVEN.  Tumblr asexuals certainly seem to talk more about race and LGBT issues.  And some tumblrites criticize AVEN for being sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise not up to standards.  I've been watching this carefully to see if it emerges as a larger conflict.

The lesson I would draw from this is that feminism and social justice are common sources of conflict for social movements.  Your movement is not unique.

I think the reason is that social justice demands to be intersectional.  You may argue that social justice movements should be separate from other movements to prevent community division (just as we would keep vegetarianism and gay rights separate, even if some people advocate both).  But while a separate social justice movement can fight for national policies, it would be powerless to fight for change within other social movements.  There is only one group of people who can fight for minority inclusivity within the atheist community, and that is the atheist community.  Likewise for the asexual community and any other community.

Disclaimer: I am a biased source, and this history does not attempt to be objective.  With respect to the framing wars, I've been pro-anger (although not angry myself).  I've taken the social justice side of the current atheist schism.  I am mostly on Tumblr, but have no ill will towards AVEN.

6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 


miller said...

I just read through all 6 parts of your series, here. I really enjoyed them as I fall in line with the vast majority of your experiences and views. I don't want to simply agree with everything, I want to have my own opinions, but seriously 99% of the time I feel like I truly do agree with everything you've written.

I have been a part of the atheist movement since December 2009 and started using AVEN to help figure out my identity for real around the end of 2012.

I was 19 years old and had just finished my first semester of my sophomore year of college where the Comparative Religions course I'd just completed had left me feeling sure that I was an atheist. I ended up listening to podcasts, following countless fellow atheists on twitter, and browsing a few websites. ;) I even joined an atheist & secular humanist club at my school, and got to see Greta Christina give her "Why Are Atheists So Angry" speech, although other than that I only attended 2 or 3 quite lame meetings with the pitiful group. The Podcasts ended up being the thing that kept me most involved in the movement, and they still do. I also found some scientific skepticism heavy ones to get addicted to listening to every week. One of my atheism "friends", Angie the Anti-theist (made well known for live-tweeting her abortion, in addition to her atheism vlogging and blogging as the granddaughter of a cult leader) had once tweeted something about how she had asexual friends and I think she specifically replied to a tweet of mine and specifically sent me the link to the Asexuality 101 page on AVEN. I found the concept new and fascinating but pushed it to the back of my mind, not really ready to accept that it might apply to me.

I graduated college, and then when I was 22 I finally went on my first date ever, with the help of an online dating site. I experienced my first kiss ever, and it was lackluster. I began to wonder if the guy just "wasn't my type" and then I realized I didn't have a clue what "my type" would be. I started naturally gravitating toward AVEN and especially the "What is sexual attraction?" threads (I had found and revived two old ones that had died like a year prior). I discussed things on there with both allosexuals and asexuals, learned that demisexuality existed, and continued going on a few dates. I ended up using multiple dating sites, going out with 3 different guys total, but never picking the guys based on their looks - rather their personalities, since looks really didn't matter to me. I explored AVEN more and then discovered tumblr's asexuality community and since I already had been using tumblr for fandom-related stuff for years, and I liked the social justice side of what I was seeing there, I left AVEN behind in favor of tumblr. I decided about a year later, when I was 23, to officially label myself as asexual, and it has only been a few months now. I'm 24 and at the moment feel more active in the asexuality community than in the atheist one. ;) I've had more years to be a part of the atheist one, and so my passionate involvement in it has died down in place of participating in the asexual one instead.

miller said...

I'm glad you chime in even if only to agree. I feel uncertain about the way I represent some of the atheist controversies, because I have a strong bias towards blogs, where all controversies are greatly amplified. If you had similar impressions based on podcasts and twitter, the corroboration is helpful.

I think I have also become more active in the asexual community than in the atheist community. For me, it's not that my passion dies down over the years (I tend to be not-so-passionate over a long period of time), but that the barrier to entry is much lower for the asexual community.

miller said...

You're probably right about that whole "barrier to entry" thing. ;) I see what you mean.

And um.. well, twitter and podcasts often are based on people reading some of the most popular blogs/websites too, and twitter often links to people's posts, and Rebecca Watson herself was (is?) a podcast host lol, of two different podcasts actually, and I'd been interested in her podcasts right around when Elevatorgate happened, I believe, so I listened to things straight from the source, presumably... it's been a while now though so I can't be sure. I know I also heard/read stuff from various other sources.

I think the way you described it felt accurate yet concise, and fair for how I remember the details and the way it divided the community as well. It turned into the atheism+ thing where some people were strongly-anti it and idk.

And well, I'm still quite passionate about my atheism stuff, even though now I'm used to all the arguments and nothing is quite as fresh and exciting and interesting as it might've been a few years ago lol... the main reason I've stopped being as involved is that I've graduated college and so I spend a lot less time walking on a huge campus or eating meals alone where I want to listen to podcasts as I do that. :P I also got to the point where I was following too many people on twitter between all of my fandom interests and all of the atheists, so I created a second twitter account and got rid of the constant barrage of atheism-related tweets in my main twitter.

Still, just last week I saw someone who I was following on my fandom twitter (luvtheheaven) tweet out something... and ended up using my JustLoseFaith twitter to have a long discussion/argument with a woman who is currently studying to become a Jehovah's Witness. :P

I also was using private email to work as a beta (proofreader) for someone's Glee fanfiction story and when we were talking briefly about Cory Monteith's death, I mentioned that my uncle had died recently and under relatively similar circumstances, so she told me to find comfort in Heaven or something like that as her default way of expressing sympathy for my loss. :P So... I couldn't resist coming out as an atheist to her and ended up explaining in depth how and why I came to my conclusions, which included both no gods and no afterlives. :P She tried to tell me she respects people's free will choices not to accept God and I tried to explain that I didn't exactly "choose" to not believe... lol... So I am certainly still involved in the atheist movement. ;)

I also just read a BUNCH of posts here on your blog so I think this month of March has rekindled my atheist-fire, hehe.


miller said...

Yeah, those describe things which I've always avoided doing, because I'm not very confrontational. I think I'm much more interested in keeping track of and participating in debates which are internal to the atheist community--although I probably don't do a whole lot of good.

miller said...

I think we all have something to contribute, even if it's only within the community itself. I choose to participate in this way sometimes, sure, but I don't think everybody else has to too or else they're "doing it wrong", lol!

I feel like I may have successfully planted some doubt in one of the two girls minds without making either one hate me. They left the conversation on a sort of "agree to disagree" note, because they feel sure God is the only thing getting them through the hard times in life and I couldn't really say much more to them except that if they lived a secular life like me, I felt sure they'd find something else to "get them through" hard moments. But they didn't run away really angry with me or upset in any way. I'm still that girl's beta for her Glee fanfiction. We're able to still be civil. ;)