Why I Do What I Do

I know that the work we do — whether we’re professional activists, or just people trying to make the world better in our everyday lives — can sometimes be frustrating and discouraging, and can feel like we’re beating our heads against a wall. So I thought I’d share this email I just got from someone who responded to my recent pledge drive. It’s making me spring about the apartment going, “I can do this! I’m making a difference! This is totally worth it!” I hope it does the same for some of you.

I had already written this before I made my donation, but I hadn’t gotten around to checking it for the eleventieth time and sending it (perhaps it would have made more sense to do it the other way around, but hey):

After thinking a lot about how I was going to say this (and editing it about a thousand times, because this will probably be written so terribly no matter what I do), I just wanted to say thankyou. My contribution for PZ’s “why I am an atheist”, with my not-so-sneaky thankyou to you, might not get posted for, well, forever. So, I thought the least I can do is bother to email you personally.

Along with Jen, you’ve been a major factor in my coming to feminism, and as a man, coming to see my privilege for what it is (and more importantly, breaking through the denial after that realisation). You’ve also been amazingly insightful and interesting when it comes to sexuality, which as someone who’s straight also brings out another area of privilege for me. That, and making me think about my own sexuality, and being reassured that having different aspects of my sexuality and preferences that differ from the “expected” way (ie. moderate conservative, like society is here in the rural parts of the UK, or expected “normal” male sexuality) is not a bad thing.

Anyway, I can definitely say my life is a measurable amount better thanks to you to the point where a simple “thankyou” doesn’t really cut it. Being a person lacking in social confidence, surrounded by people who almost all have opposite worldviews to your own is difficult at times, but that’s why I love the internet. I hope you keep on blogging (and everything else) for a long, long time, because you’ve made a huge difference so far (especially for me).

– Jim

Jim — thank you so much. This is what I live for. You totally made my day.

It’s especially encouraging — as it so often is — to hear men say they appreciate the writing and the work that I, and so many other people, are doing about feminism. The fights in the atheosphere and skeptosphere about feminism and sexism and misogyny have been painful and ugly, and I know a lot of us get very down about it. It’s really good to be reminded that the work is paying off, and that lots of people are getting their minds and their hearts changed.

We can do this. We’re making a difference. This is totally worth it.

Why I Do What I Do
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17 thoughts on “Why I Do What I Do

  1. 1

    Not to trump Jim. But I should go ahead and thank you for all you have done for the Atheist community. I quite often read your blog and had the opportunity to see you speak in Columbus at the SSA. But that speech you made at SkepticonIV was freaking awesome. One of the best I’ve ever heard in my life. Without you this community would be missing a main hub. Thank you for everything. I look forward to the future.

  2. 2

    What an encouraging email. I’m always really happy when I hear people in positions of privilege have rethought that privilege and where they stand on issues that affect marginalised groups.

    Thanks for all you do, Greta. I’m afraid I don’t currently have the money to donate or subscribe, but when I do, I will!

  3. 3

    Too often we hear sad, depressing stories about atheists. It was fantastic to hear this. I’m happy for Jim. I’m happy for Greta. In fact, first round of drinks for you both are on me!

  4. 4

    I’ll add my voice to Jim’s albeit arguably to a lesser extent (you can’t grow up the son of an activist feminist without some of that rubbing off on you), but you (and Jen) do write about topics of male-female interaction in a manner that’s readily accessible to men without being hectoring or resorting to pointing at vaguely defined concepts, like “patriarchy” or “rape culture” (terms that tend to pique my skepticism because, in my experience, they’re all too often used to gloss over holes in the speaker’s argument, in a similar way to which conspiracy theories hand-wave away lack of evidence by arguing that conspirators suppressed it). In addition, while I’m a life-long atheist and it’s pretty clear in my own mind why I am, you have knack for articulating the problems with religion (organized or otherwise) in a manner that’s easy for others to understand.

  5. 5


    -I was aware of some of the male privileges that I and whole mess of other men have, but having read the above list, I wasn’t aware of many others (privileges, btw, that I think need to be actively discussed and confronted head on; it’s ridiculous that so many men are unaware of just how privileged they are). One that stood out to me:

    27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time.

    -I have no knowledge about the grooming regimen of women, so I really have no clue how much time it consumes. I knew that purchasing grooming products is more expensive for women (which helps foster the sexist notion that the most important thing about a woman is her appearance; GAH! I’m bald and I want to pull my hair out). I can skip shaving for a few days, and having a 5:00 shadow is hardly noticed. If a woman doesn’t shave her legs, that gets noticed. As if it should matter (to shave or not shave should only be of concern to the individual).

    -One of the big male privileges I despise (I don’t like any of them, but for some reason, this is a biggie for me) is the use of the word ‘slut’ for women who have had multiple sexual partners. I’ve been involved in discussions of women enjoying sex and having multiple sexual partners. Far too often, the women are referred to as ‘sluts’, yet the same men lobbing that insult will go on to chat about how much sex they get and all the girls they’ve slept with. Every time I hear that, I chime in with “why are girls called ‘sluts’ when they sleep with several guys, but guys aren’t called ‘sluts’ for sleeping with lots of women?”. Now that I think about it, I don’t recall getting an response from anyone I’ve posed the question to.

    -I don’t know about you, but in my time being out and socializing with the GLBT community, I hear guys called sluts quite often. Sometimes it’s merely humorous. Other times, it’s meant as insult. Have you heard anything comparable amongst lesbians?

  6. 7

    I’ll toss in a “thank you” also. I’ve really enjoyed your writing for the last couple of years. Rational, thoughtful, and eloquent.

    I think it was links from Pharyngula to a couple of your posts that got me started noticing. And then I was following your blog directly. There were some great posts on atheism, and I was still fairly new to calling myself an atheist at the time, that really drew me in.

    Since I liked the atheism posts so much I read other posts too. And I loved the approach that was rational and clearly thinking about the different angles. So while I don’t like to call myself a feminist, I’ve learned quite a bit about the rational view of it and about the problems of the culture and so on.

    So, I do appreciate your writing about sexuality and feminism, as well as skepticism and atheism, because it’s eloquent and convincing. I think you’re a great communicator who avoids a lot of the traps that can make people defensive or turn them away.

  7. 8

    @Jurjen, #4

    I would suggest that a lot of the behaviors and social attitudes that constitute “patriarchy” and “rape culture” are not ill-defined, so much as based on a multitude of subtle, pervasive acts that are all very much on a continuum all the way to oppression and violence. As such, for women who study this stuff, it’s kind of like fish defining water, so if you’re on an “advanced” feminist blog, writers assume there’s a certain familiarity with the concepts among their commentariat, so what you perceive as holes in argument are actually references to lots of complicated background knowledge (as an analogy, just think how much evolutionary biologists can cover with “natural selection” to be perfectly understood by other biologists, but to someone straight out of high-school biology and still with an ear to creationist arguments, “natural selection” seems like hand-waving, because they don’t know the background).

    Here are some pretty good definitions that I’ve come across:


    Here’s a few words on why these things may not be discussed in as much detail as you’d like on most blogs:

    The first reason FF101 exists is to help ensure that discussions between feminists don’t get continually derailed by challenges from newbies and/or antagonists to explain and justify our terminology and conclusions to them, right now! Substantive challenges can be valuable, but constantly having to explain basic theory over and over, when an interesting discussion was underway, gets really frustrating. There’s a time and a place for discussing the basics, and disrupting a discussion on other feminist topics is not that time and place.

  8. 10

    @Jurjen S. (#4): Going off of what LeftSidePositive said, there is literally decades worth of rigorous research illustrating extant patriarchy and rape culture (data aggregated from personal narratives, surveys demonstrating that various coercive or forces sexual acts are viewed as completely normal and acceptable by lots of people, statistical patterns of privilege, marginalization, and violence differentiated on the basis of read gender or prescriptive-gender non-conformity, aggregate patterns identified in e.g. advertising, films, television shows that normalize sexual violence, and a whole lot more). If you’re interested in seeing the ‘hard evidence’, as it were, I suggest seraching Google Scholar for the terms “rape culture” and “patriarchy”. You’ll find more than you can read in years. LeftSidePositive’s links provide some good basic info and clarification of terms like “patriarchy” and “rape culture” that are often misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented, if you need or would like background information before getting into the more advanced theory.

    @LeftSidePositive (#8): Well-put, now I don’t have to explain that bit. 🙂

  9. 11

    Let me make it quite clear that I’m not attempting to deny that phenomena genuinely exist for which such terms are a convenient shorthand. As I say, the terms “pique my skepticism” by which I mean I won’t dismiss essays or arguments in which they are used purely on the basis that those terms appear; but I do tend to read them with a somewhat more critical eye, because I have come across instances where the terms were thrown about a bit too casually.

  10. 12

    Jurjen, to continue with my “natural selection” analogy–think of all the times selection is thrown around too casually (especially in the popular media!). Just because some EvoPsycho has way too many half-formed theories about how traits must have been selected for, does not mean that you have to treat the whole idea of natural selection with skepticism, nor would you bring up your skepticism out of the blue as the most salient point about your opinion on natural selection.

    I’d like to just suggest again that perhaps you could consider more deeply the experiences of the women who write about these topics, since they probably have at least decades of daily experience on a very personal level. I’m not saying I agree with everyone’s opinion on these topics at all time, and it’s certainly good to refine ideas and engage in productive academic criticism. If something doesn’t sound right to you, consider asking for more information or guidance on how to educate yourself, and then once you have more of the facts, then you will be better equipped to examine theories and assertions.

    Although, I’d like to note that patriarchy and rape culture are literally things that we deal with Every. Single. Day. They’re in the music we listen to, the news we read, the ads that go by on buses and pop up on our computers, the plot of sitcoms, what we are expected to eat, when we can go outside, how we’re supposed to dress, and much more. So, if we’re talking about phenomena that we see multiple times each day every day, is it really fair to say we’re “throw[ing the terms] around a bit too casually”?

    Another note on “hectoring” from your previous comment–I like Greta’s and Jen’s writing very much, too, but for other writers, consider that with all the injustice, belittling, and intimidation women face in the world, aren’t we allowed to get a little upset about it? Can’t we vent some frustration without it being a character flaw? Is it so wrong that we “hector”? (Frankly, by your definition doesn’t Greta “hector” about atheistic topics? Or PZ for that matter?) Consider also that society tends to view outspoken women very differently and more harshly than outspoken men. Might your aversion to feminists “hectoring” be a result of this cultural bias you’ve absorbed and perhaps not examined quite as closely as you’d like to?

  11. 13

    Whoa there, LS+, regarding my use of the word “hectoring,” you’re getting dangerously close to setting up a straw man by assuming what I mean, as distinct from actually asking for clarification. Very likely some clarification of my position is indeed in order, and possibly some qualification because there’s always a risk I expressed myself in a manner that lends itself to misinterpretation, but please don’t put words in my mouth.

    Might your aversion to feminists “hectoring” be a result of this cultural bias you’ve absorbed and perhaps not examined quite as closely as you’d like to?

    No, but you’re doing an excellent job of illustrating what I have against the terms, namely that they’re all too often used as the premise of an argument, and that anyone who disagrees with that premise is subjected to a remarkable combination of circular reasoning and circumstantial ad hominem; that is, the very fact that they take issue with the term is used not only as evidence that the phenomenon exists but that said person is affected by it.

    And that kind of thing, in turn, puts qualifiers (as given in the FF101 “Patriarchy” FAQ that “not all men are Patriarchs” and that “non-elite men do not generally actively conspire with Patriarchs” on shaky ground, because evidently, when it comes to the crunch, some people only subscribe to these qualifiers when anyone is watching (and forget to re-subscribe to them even when somebody is watching).

    Frankly, by your definition doesn’t Greta “hector” about atheistic topics?

    Frankly, no. Precisely because Greta doesn’t dismiss people who disagree with her with circumstantial ad hominems that boil down to “well, you would say that, you’re a product of the The(ist)ocracy who’s been thoroughly assimilated into the Praise Culture.” She actually addresses the arguments they make, rather than the presumed position from which those arguments are made.

    This is, incidentally, illustrative of my point that you should have asked me what I meant by “hectoring” rather than assuming what I meant by it. You don’t know me, and it would be breathtakingly presumptuous of you to think that you don’t need to know me to understand what I’m trying to convey. Especially if you were to do so solely on the basis that I’m male.

    All that said, let me get to some points I consider problematical in the FF101 FAQs you linked to.

    Rape culture is a militarized culture and “the natural product of all wars, everywhere, at all times, in all forms.”

    Really? Operation “Allied Force”–the NATO air campaign to eject Serbian forces from Kosovo–was conducted entirely by air power. If any NATO pilot managed to rape any Serb civilians while zooming overhead at several thousand feet at Mach One, I would love to hear it.
    And let’s examine the proffered reference:

    And rape culture is a militarized culture, at the borders of nations, at sites of war, in places where the police have been armed with lethal weapons. […] Rape culture is a weapon of war against “terror,” and of a war against “drugs.”

    Police officers carry lethal weapons almost everywhere; one of the countries where they don’t is Japan, but if there’s one culture that qualifies for the monicker “rape culture,” Japan would be it. “Comfort women,” anyone? Tentacle porn?
    And you can take issue with the so-called “wars” to “terror” and “drugs” (and Ghu knows I do) but for all the violations of civil liberties that have occurred in the process, I have yet to hear of instances of SWAT teams routinely raping women in the course of executing search warrants.

    Rape culture is the insistence on trying to distinguish between different kinds of rape via the use of terms like “gray rape” or “date rape.”

    This is a prime example of what I mean by the term “rape culture” being tossed around too casually. Making a distinction between different kinds of rape “encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women”?

    Look, I spent the better part of four years working for the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; I’ve dealt with a few rape cases of varying scales. And I do think there are legitimate distinctions to be made, in mindset of the perpetrator if nothing else; and perhaps they’re ultimately merely distinctions of degree, but as long as we bear in mind that the various forms are, ultimately, still all forms of rape and we don’t try to use a term like “date rape” to mean “not really rape,” it’s a distinction worth making because a difference in mindset means you may need to take differing approaches to get through to potential perpetrators that what they’re doing is wrong.

    Rape culture is tasking victims with the burden of rape prevention.

    This is different from any other crime… how exactly? I mean, I agree that there should not be any moral obligation on a (potential) crime victim to take precautions, but the fact is that if you want to prevent a crime from happening to you, the only person you can count on is yourself. You can dislike the fact that the burden of crime prevention falls to the victims, but you can’t realistically expect to prevent a single criminal offense by appealing to the offenders’ better nature. They already know what they’re doing is illegal, and they’ve decided not to let that stop them.

    At best, “admonish[ing] men to not rape” can be expected to be effective on potential perpetrators who don’t realize that, yes, “date rape” is rape and therefore wrong, but when you’ve already condemned making distinctions between different types of rape as “encourag[ing] male sexual aggression and support[ing] violence against women,” you’re just trying to have it both ways.

  12. 14

    I’ll get to your wall of text in a minute, but first I’m going to call you out for disingenuously claiming I strawmanned you on “hector.” Seriously–there’s nothing to assume. THAT’S WHAT THE WORD MEANS. Here, I’ll go to four different dictionaries to show you:

    Mac Dictionary: talk to (someone) in a bullying way

    Dictionary.com: to act in a blustering, domineering way; be a bully.

    Merriam-Webster.com: : to intimidate or harass by bluster or personal pressure

    TheFreeDictionary.com: To intimidate or dominate in a blustering way.

    So, don’t for a single second try to claim I’m “putting words in your mouth” or “strawmanning” you–you said what you said, and I’m not “assuming” what you mean when that is THE DEFINITION OF THE WORD. Why should I be tasked to intuit that you actually mean the word to be something different than it is? Why is it presumptuous of me to interpret the word to mean THE MOST OBVIOUS DEFINITION OF THE WORD? And I’m not presuming what you mean “just because you’re male”–but rather, because that’s what every dictionary says!

    Saying that most feminist writers are bullying, blustering, domineering, and intimidating is pretty much playing into negative stereotypes about outspoken women, and I’d also add that yes, in fact, atheist writers are often accused of very much the same thing by people who are uncomfortable with the substance of their arguments and instead try to blame the atheists for being “angry,” making an “unsafe space” for theists, and bullying–in fact, doesn’t Greta have an entire lecture on atheists and anger?

  13. 15

    And now, on to the rest of your misconceptions:

    1) I stated that many women on feminist blogs are discussing real and pressing concerns in their lives. I also stated the well-known cultural phenomenon where outspoken men are admired whereas outspoken women are shunned. I suggested you might be exhibiting signs of this very entrenched phenomenon (and phrased it as politely as I possibly could and emphasized it was a cultural problem and not a personal flaw on your part) never mind, apparently assessing the impact of culture on a person is an “ad hominem” to you! Considering the cultural forces behind your attitude was the *end result* of looking at how resistant you are to considering “rape culture” and “patriarchy,” and your apparent disposition to seeing outspoken women as “hectoring.” An ad hominem would be “you’re just culturally biased and therefore I don’t have to listen to you” AS OPPOSED TO “you are exhibiting signs A, B, and C, which are indicative to me of cultural bias,” which is an assessment, not an ad hominem.

    2) It’s not “just because [you] disagree[]…” that I’m criticizing you–I actually went to quite a bit of trouble to educate you politely on what the these terms mean to those who use them. Moreover, there are certain patterns of denial and derailing (see, for example, basically the rest of your post) that send up some pretty major red flags (not to mention tone trolling at a lot of feminists), so it’s not the fact of disagreement, it’s the tactics of disagreement and the behavior/assumptions revealed therein.

    3) Denial of rape culture and patriarchy are VERY common intrinsic defenses to prop them up, and if you were more familiar with what these terms meant, you’d know that. Now, it is not “taking issue” with the term that necessarily indicates rape culture and patriarchy exist, but rather it is the objections that fall into the pattern of “dismiss, deflect, and derail,” especially when the person in question is WAY too eager to ignore what women are saying about their experiences, and would not be convinced by ANYTHING that these women may have a point. Again, these are both models that state a priori, “there will be a lot of denial of these issues,” and so pointing out that their observations fit the model is not “circular,” it’s validating. Moreover, intrinsic to the model is that EVERYONE is affected by rape culture and patriarchy–even people who are really opposed to them, like me! But I notice these snap judgements and prejudices even from myself all too often. So it’s not just because you disagree that you’re affected by these principles–BASELINE is being affected by them, because human beings are profoundly affected by their cultural forces.

    4) “Not all men are Patriarchs” means that not all men wield a great deal of social power. But, you don’t have to actually be a patriarch to be affected by it or assimilate to it. “Patriarchy” means a society organized around and for the benefit of powerful, women-and-children-controlling men (i.e., patriarchs); it does not mean “a group of people behaving like patriarchs.” The operative phrase in the second quotation is **actively conspire**: that simply means, most men don’t advance patriarchal ideals on purpose. But, you can still be profoundly affected by your culture, and absorb its values and further its assumptions, even if you do it without meaning to. This is really not a difficult concept. For instance, I was very clear with you that I did not think your tendency to use words like “hectoring” was the result of a conscious dislike for women, but as skeptics I’d think we’d all be very familiar with the concept of unconscious bias.

    More to come later on…

  14. 16

    5) A few things may be happening that you’re interpreting as, “well, you would say that, you’re a product of…” One, you may have overlooked someone actually saying why ze found your (or someone else’s) behavior/words problematic, and how it relates to the rape culture issue under discussion–I have seen this done by many others, who will ignore paragraphs of explanation and just get upset that someone used referred to him and rape culture in the same sentence, but of course I have no way of knowing if you yourself do it, only that this is common. Two, they may be busy with their own discussion and not want to delve too deeply into your misconceptions at that moment (it is time-consuming, after all). Three, you may have inadvertently said something usually said by a troll and they assumed you to be a troll on that basis. Four, the statement may not be an attack on you personally, it may be a reflection on how rape culture and patriarchy affects all of us. Five, they may (erroneously) believe whatever you said was so obviously tied to rape culture it needed no further explanation. Six, the particular person may be having a bad day or is not particularly intellectually rigorous–in my experience, that’s been in the minority, but the fact that some people do not have a good handle on the concepts does not make the concepts themselves inherently untrustworthy.

    6) Okay–congratulations!! You’ve found one military operation out of thousands that had no direct human-to-human contact! Do you really think that invalidates the point of the millions of women who have been raped by marauding armies? Does that invalidate the point that “routine” use of sexual violence against women is endemic as a tool of war, even those wars where it did not become part of the cultural narrative? Do you really think that makes the author’s point about the ubiquity of war rape any less valid? Are you not able to understand what she meant because she didn’t say “in all forms except airborne or robotic attacks”? Must she weaken the force of what she was saying to include that incredibly obvious disclaimer? (By the way, the aftermath of airborne attacks can lead to situations where rape is endemic–basically anything that causes refugees is going to lead to an appalling level of rape in camps). Why do you ignore the horrors of millions of women throughout history to make an extremely pedantic, trivial, and snarky point? Moreover, a single military operation is not a “war,” and in the war to which you were referring, rape was so common as to get its own Wikipedia page.

    7) What the hell does whether or not officers carry physical weapons have to do with whether or not rape can be used as a weapon? It never says that police carrying lethal weapons is a prerequisite for rape culture, just that it is common, as is rape by police officers, including using their service weapons to force compliance with the rape.

    8) Here is an example of rape in the War on Terror. Rape in the War on Drugs is EXTREMELY common–prisoner rape is appallingly common, and locking people up for drug offenses makes them vulnerable. Rape victims are also more likely to be addicted to drugs, and therefore at risk of getting caught up in the War on Drugs, especially if they have to engage in survival sex. Police officers also ignore rape reports made by women who are addicted to drugs. The War on Drugs also diverts lab resources from testing rape kits to doing drug analysis, which prevents women from getting justice. So, you could have actually thought about this stuff or looked some of it up, instead of so gleefully dismissing it as terms being thrown around “too casually.”

    9) I think you know perfectly well that the terms “date rape” and “gray rape” are frequently used to minimize what happened, and to suggest that the only “real rape” is stranger-in-the-bushes-attacks-white-virgin. “Gray rape” means nothing else other than it doesn’t seem like it’s really rape, or we are reluctant to define it as such. YOU might not think of date rape as less real than other types of rape, but you are not representative of everyone–Here is one example, then there’s the minimization of date rape charges against Julian Assange, and then there’s the odious HR 3 proposed in our own congress that tried to define the only rape that qualified for abortion funding as “forcible rape”. “Date rape” is frequently downplayed as “miscommunication” or “just morning after regret.” So, don’t rail against feminists for addressing a very real and pervasive problem with minimization, just because you don’t personally do it.

    10) YOU’RE SUPPORTING WOMEN BEING TASKED WITH RAPE PREVENTION???? Do you know anything about feminism AT ALL?!?!? No wonder you seem to be unclear about higher-level concepts like “Patriarchy” and “Rape Culture”–you don’t even know why tasking women with rape prevention is wrong? First off, it is NOT the same as any other crime, because in other crimes, juries don’t let criminals off the hook because the victims didn’t “prevent it enough” (whatever that means). Rape prevention advice is actually telling society–rapists included–what behaviors will cause society to look the other way when someone is raped. It tells rapists that their actions will be ignored as though they were some force of nature and everyone will be focusing on their victim. It’s about victims being shamed and interrogated for what they wore or did. It’s about police officers sexually harassing women under the guise of telling them to be “careful” about a rapist. It utterly ignores that the majority of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim. Moreover, we’re not trying to just “appeal to the offenders’ better nature”–we’re trying to create a society where their crimes will be taken seriously, and that they will be more likely to be investigated and prosecuted. We want to focus on the rapist so police departments and labs actually try to find him, rather than expect women to severely curtail their lives. We want a society where rapists don’t just assume they can get away with it–as is, 15 out of 16 rapists don’t spend a day in jail.

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