On Friends and Allies

Greg Epstein has written a post on the topic of men’s unmet needs for intimate friendships and emotional support. The parts of the post that are about the topic are good. The phenomenon has been observed for a while, but he presents research that systematically confirms the observations.

However, Epstein’s post takes a dive off the rails when he tries to use this research to explain a lack of gender parity at the Harvard Humanist Hub and, by extension, in atheist spaces in general.

Close friendship is really important. So, when organizations put out an open call for participation, sometimes who comes out first are the people who are most in need of connection. This neither excuses any potential bad or sexist behavior by any man, nor does it make any man a lesser person for wanting or needing closer friendship in his life. It just is.


If men show up in droves, it may be because they’re suffering, not trying to dominate.


What do you think? Is this why there are a lot of men in organized secularism? What are some other major reasons?

Reading this, it appears as though Epstein is brand new to the question of how spaces become gendered. The strange thing is that he’s not.

In February, the Humanist Community at Harvard named Anita Sarkeesian as the Harvard Humanist of the Year. He had an opportunity to examine, not just her message of how women are excluded and “othered”, but also the vicious reaction to anyone taking that message seriously. His Twitter notifications and Harvard Humanists’ media mentions were a treat after the announcement went out, though generally still more polite than women talking about the topic have received.

There’s also the fact that Epstein’s theory doesn’t match the available data. Yes, the Humanist Hub tends male, but so do atheist spaces that aren’t remotely geared toward being supportive. Take, for example /r/atheism. It’s one of the least supportive spaces on Reddit. It’s also very, very male.

Then there’s the data we have on who attends church. We know that one of the things many atheists miss about church is the community. In fact, that’s a big part of what spaces like the Humanist Hub say they’re trying to replicate. If Epstein’s theory were correct, we’d expect more men to go to church than women. In reality, the opposite is true.

When it comes down to it, Epstein’s post is an exercise in overdetermination. We don’t need to fish for answers. We have information on why fewer women frequent atheist spaces. (Men show up places because it never occurs to them not to unless that space is marked “feminist” or “women’s”.) Some of it is demographic, as fewer women identify as “nonreligious”, “atheist”, “agnostic”, and “secular”. Some of it is that modern life makes more demands on women’s time, and atheist groups rarely offer to take some of that burden in order to give women time to attend.

Then there’s sexism. Don’t take my word for it. There are plenty of women who have been trying to get themselves heard on the topic for years.

On top of that sexism, there is also the denial of sexism. To explain just how much work this is, consider that dealing with it has been a major project of more than a dozen highly visible atheist activists (plus countless others) for the three years that followed Rebecca Watson saying, “Guys, don’t do that”, and the two years following Jen McCreight letting it slip that women in the movement warned each other about who to avoid in order to not be sexually assaulted. It is, in fact, more work than dealing with the sexism in the first place.

Now here we are. After all this work, after all this speaking out, a leader of a major atheist group, a group that just gave its major award to a feminist who speaks about these problems, has just written a post asking if maybe the problem is that men need friends.

There are lots of things I could say at this point. I don’t think any of them would be productive. So I’ll just leave it at this:

No, Greg. That’s not the problem.


On Friends and Allies

5 thoughts on “On Friends and Allies

  1. 1

    men’s unmet needs for intimate friendships and emotional support.

    The piece by Greg Epstein seems very…scatter shot? I cannot even reply to it. Yes. Feminism can help men by breaking down any social constructs. Was his purpose just to through out a mental piece of thoughts on a blog to start, what? I simply cannot frame the context of his post with any objective purpose.

  2. 2

    I’ll say it – Greg Epstein appears to be one of the many reasons there are few women in these spaces.

    I was just reflecting on why I SO mistrust anyone who projects a “good guy” persona (in relation to Tom Hank’s public image) and it’s because I’ve seen too many “good guys” refuse to recognize that their behavior can be really toxic and awful to the people around them, particularly women and POC. They shove off any responsibility and stubbornly insist the blame lies elsewhere – other men who aren’t “good guys” or even the victims of the toxic behavior themselves. Their belief that they are “good guys” becomes paramount to all other considerations.

    And Greg Epstein sounds like he might be exactly that sort of “good guy.”

  3. 3

    Also, what about non-male apostates of religion? When we leave our religions, we tend to have just as few friends and allies as men allegedly have. Maybe even fewer than non-apostate men.

  4. 4

    Corvus Elrod @2,
    Exactly! Those who sport this “good guy” persona are not to be trusted. The persona is too often contrived and used to mask some underlying injustice like mysigony or racism or ablism or you name it. If they are the “good guy” then surely it must be some other less enlightened dudebros fault that women don’t feel more safe and welcome in these communities. Well that’s bullshit they need to look in a mirror.

  5. 5

    When men “dominate” they are really just hurt and need some tenderness and support from the non-men they are “dominating”. Women should feel sorry for those men because they are the real victims. what about their feels?Those women being “dominated”? Fuck ’em. They need to be nicer to the poor men.

    Sorry Greg. Heard it. Heard it my whole life. It’s called sexism and it stinks however you try to excuse it.

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