Saturday, June 30, 2012

Template for my reaction to discussion threads on sexism

Look, a thread about an article addressing sexism in ______. Let's read the whole thing through.

I see that participants in ______ took their time to read the article, avoided making pointless ad hominem attacks against the real or imagined authors of it, and carefully considered whether the criticisms made reflected the presence of a real bias in ______ which should be addressed and rectified, or whether perhaps they were well-intentioned but mistaken interpretations of _______ which deserve a thoughtful rebuttal rather than effectively saying "You're complaining about sexism in ______? Well, I'll give you some sexism to complain about!"

Oh wait...that's not what happened?

What a surprise.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's very simple, really. Really.

So the conversation about sexual harassment at skeptical conferences continues on Freethought Blogs, and doesn't show any sign of ending soon. And it has turned to the topic of what constitutes sexual harassment is generally, what people in charge can do about it, and how to avoid being guilty of it. That's a good discussion to's just that it's not a new discussion, and it's not a radically different concept from how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace, though it's kind of bizarre how many people are acting as if it is.

A new person was added to the network, Thunderf00t (no, I don't know why he spells it like that) who makes Youtube videos on skepticism. In his second post ever as part of the network, what Thunderf00t did was effectively take a flying leap and land right in the middle of a very complex and lengthy discussion, and in doing so he splattered ignorance all over the place. Ignorance of the specific conversation about TAM and DJ Grothe, which is entirely understandable and which I don't think anyone needs to have knowledge of in order to talk about sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies generally, but also a much less forgivable kind of ignorance-- that of what sexual harassment is, and why it still is that even when you add 1) alcohol and 2) fun. Thunderf00t is, you see, quite certain that policies against sexual harassment will be the end of fun, especially while drinking alcohol. So basically he did a big cannonball dive of "I don't care to even find out what you guys think or have been saying first" right in the deep end of rational discussion, and then he did so again with a follow-up post about PZ Myers after Myers pointed out what was wrong with the first one.

To wit:
And maybe most pertinently, PZ explaining why his policy wouldn’t be a killjoy.
 If you want to chew on some woman’s leg, no, you don’t have to consult the conference handbook.”
“You have to fucking consult the woman.”
Facepalm.  Yes this is exactly why you are killjoys to the VAST majority of civil, honest respectable folks.  IT WAS IN A BAR.  I enjoyed it, she enjoyed it (she left a comment specifically saying so, just to remove all doubt (see MyLegMYCHOICE!)), AND I NEVER HAD TO CONSULT HER, NOR APPLY FOR PERMISSION FROM THE CONFERENCE, IN ORDERS SIGNED IN TRIPLICATE SENT IN, SENT BACK AND BURIED IN SOFT PEAT FOR THREE MONTHS AND RECYCLED AS FIRELIGHTERS etc etc.  Indeed had I had to fill in the paperwork along with ‘permission to bite your leg in a horseplay photo’ form under conference interpersonal contact rule 144 b) 2, it would have probably kinda killed the moment, and neither I nor she would have got our mild thrills for the night.  It’s boys n girls have fun in bars! 
Look I’ll make it simple, the point of a bar isn’t to make everyone maximally safe (indeed if it were, they would ban bars, as it would be far safer if everyone just stayed at home and did nothing), it’s to let everyone have the most amount of fun.  The reason people don’t go to bars that are maximally safe, is because they are DULL, with folks always living in fear of crossing some random rule written by  some hypersensitive pencil-necked PC jockey.
Man, I hate caps for emphasis. Don't do it-- that's what italics are for. Use them, so you don't look like the Unabomber crossed with a chimpanzee. Kaczynski couldn't help it because he was using a typewriter, but if you've got a computer, you have the capacity to use italics! Although if you italicized every word that is capitalized here, it would simply change what looks like a person screaming at the top of his lungs to someone hissing like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Okay, let's go through the problems with this:

1. "Consult" obviously does not mean filling out documents, as Myers just got done pointing out-- not with the conference, not with the woman, not with anybody. Consulting someone means (wait for it) obtaining consent. Yes, it's that magical word again! And it's really not a difficult concept. It's so easy a concept, in fact, that I refuse to believe that Thunderf00t didn't get it loud and clear from the woman whose leg he bit, and that it was even important to him at the time to get it so as not to come off like an obnoxious creep doing what is technically battery if the recipient is unwilling. You bite a stranger on the leg; you get arrested. There's a reason for that. And hopefully nobody, including Thunderf00t, wants things any other way.

2. The fact that this is a bar we're talking about changes precisely nothing. It's still illegal to bite a stranger's leg in a bar, regardless of how drunk you are or she is. Groping someone at a bar-- any bar-- is still not okay if they're not willing. People go to bars for a lot of reasons, and for some of those people the reasons involve horseplay. For others it doesn't, and last I checked both groups of people are allowed at most bars. You don't just assume that a person is up for it without an indication from them, because that's an excellent way to get booted out of the establishment and because it's just, you know, wrong.

3. An interesting remark in the comment thread for a post at Almost Diamonds:
When you mention kink here, it just reminds me of another ironic aspect of all this. Thunderf00t is prattling on about how consulting women or setting boundaries (via harassment policies) is prohibiting ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’ But actual kink/BDSM–which I think would be clearly agreed upon by most is definitely one example of ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’–is founded on the idea of consent and boundaries. Because clearly defined consent and boundaries are what make it fun for all parties involved. (Didn’t Greta post something on exactly that subject recently, a kink/sexuality con that had very clear policies and guidelines?) 
And exactly how does ‘people letting their hair down’ prohibit making everyone ‘maximally safe’? Why does fun = unsafe? You know, I’m pretty sure that even bungee-jumping has safety rules and procedures. Why is there an assumption that respecting personal boundaries means eliminating flirtation and sexual innuendo? Why does being in a bar eliminate the need for consent? 
And why…ay. I can’t even begin to cover the fail. Why is so something so simple so difficult for people to comprehend?! 
Indeed-- it shouldn't be difficult at all, but the fact that safety is so heavily emphasized in kinky/swinger/BDSM circles is good to note. People who are involved in these groups generally take safety very seriously, because they know the risk of what could happen if they don't. People could get hurt, physically or emotionally or both. Some people have more fun when the stakes are high, but what goes along with that fun is the necessity of making sure that everybody's okay and enjoying what is happening. A lot of swingers' groups don't even allow single men to attend, because the ultimate concern is that the women who attend feel safe, and they're not likely to feel safe if the men attending are radically more numerous (no, I don't know this from experience...I read about it in Skipping Towards Gomorrah).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record yet again-- safety isn't the enemy of fun in a sexual context; it's a requirement for fun for women, and should therefore be a requirement for men. If it isn't, that's the kind of man women fear rather than wanting to have fun with. A man who doesn't give a damn about consent is bad news, and I wonder how the woman whose leg Thunderf00t bit-- with her consent apparently, whether he asked for it or not-- feels about the knowledge that he doesn't consider it necessary to have. Actually, again as I said, he probably does. He just seems to be stunningly unaware of that fact, and how important it is.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Am I too hard on Psychology Today?

Honest question here. The suggestion was made by psychologist-I-admire-greatly Daniel Gilbert after I bitched to him on Twitter about an article he'd retweeted from that publication. The article is called The 7 Worst Things About Being a Male by psychologist Douglas Kenrick, and I have no objections to the existence of such an article. What I object to is this:
The cultural stereotype is that it's great to be a man. Not only do we have shorter lines at the rest room, but we make scads more money and can reach things on higher shelves in the marketplace. We don't have to deal with double standards or glass ceilings, and we're raised to have confidence and high self-esteem, so we can all comfortably act like the Sean Connery version of James Bond. Cooly knock off a few bad guys in the afternoon, then drive our Aston Martins to our expensive hotel in Monte Carlo, where beautiful movie actresses are waiting to throw themselves into our arms. 
But in truth, it ain't like that down here in Kansas. 
You know how democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried? Being male is the worst form of gender, except for all others that have been awarded/foisted. And by that I obviously don't mean that males are superior-- I mean that being male is superior. It's no "cultural stereotype;" it's a fact. As Louis CK says, it's a subscription you'd renew.

Or to put it philosophically, if prior to your birth your vision of the future was obscured by John Rawls' veil of ignorance and you had to pick your gender randomly, you'd be hoping the card you pull has an X and a Y on it. There are some unfortunate things about being white, too-- you should see how much high SPF sunblock I can burn through (literally) in a summer-- but I sure am not going to open an article for a psychology magazine by saying that the claim that it's great being white is a cultural stereotype. There may not be any Aston Martins or beautiful movie actresses (or actors, which others might prefer), but all things being equal you stand a far better chance of at least getting the former. If you're going to denigrate aspects of being a member of the majority-- even if all of the complaints you voice are entirely legitimate-- you'd better not begin by thumbing your nose at the privilege that majority status conveys. It makes you look...well, privileged. 

That's my primary beef with Kenrick's article, and it doesn't make me particularly keen to read the book from which it was excerpted, called Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. If you're interested in that combination of topics in particular, I'd recommend David Buss's book The Murderer Next Door instead. Buss has done so much research on the uglier side of romantic relationships, specifically sexual jealousy, that you wonder if he has daughters and if so whether they're allowed to date. And yet he is wonderfully egalitarian in his treatment of the facts without attempting to either explain away any behavior or convict an entire gender based on it. There are other conclusions in Kenrick's piece that cause me to wonder about his logic, namely:
Clark and Hatfield also had college men approach college women on campus using the same lines. The guys were reasonably attractive, as judged by the fact that over 50 percent of the women said "yes" to the request for a date. But the number of women who said yes to the sexual offer was precisely zero (the study was done twice, both before and after the AIDs epidemic, and the number was zero before as well as after). I heard a talk recently which revealed that it's not all about sex at all - the researcher discovered that if women were not afraid of men, if women found men attractive, and if women thought they'd have more fun in bed with a strange man, the sex difference would go away! The researcher seemed to take the findings as a blow to what she called "essentialism."  Perhaps that's good news for Brad Pitt. But unfortunately, most real women essentially find most real men rather scary, unattractive, and unsexy, and they consequently say "No."  
Err, the guys in this study were judged attractive, as Kenrick notes by pointing out that plenty of women said yes to a date. So not looking like Brad Pitt is not the problem. Essentialism, as the female researcher (who might be Terri Conley, and who Kenrick seems to believe invented the word) is using it, is the portrayal of characteristics as inevitable. Gender essentialism is the portrayal of aspects of gender as inevitable when they really aren't-- the perception of strange men as unsafe and poor in bed to the point of precluding women from being willing to sleep with them is not inevitable, as can be seen by differing levels of promiscuity practiced by women in different societies, and how that promiscuity is perceived. These will probably always be factors that women consider, because frankly they have to. As I wrote about recently, women have good reason to be suspicious about sexual propositions from total strangers regardless of how they (the strange men) look. 

Contrary to this commercial most women would not consider themselves "lucky" to wake up and discover that they'd had sex without their knowledge with even a very attractive man. I'm pretty sure that's true even if it also involves being married to him and if that man is George Clooney, though I imagine both "unsafe" and "poor in bed" would be significantly lesser concerns-- not because Clooney is necessarily either kind or talented in bed, but because if he sexually attacked a woman it would be all over the news in a heartbeat (by virtue of him being George Clooney) and because people in general are less likely to be sexually selfish in an ongoing relationship as opposed to a one-night stand. Kenrick offers no real evidence that "most real women essentially find most real men rather scary, unattractive, and unsexy," and the fact that a bunch of women turned down a bunch of strange men offering an impromptu proposition for sex sure doesn't cut it. Being physically attractive is not an issue, and it's way too easy to change the circumstances to make the man in question sexy and un-scary, hence he is not "essentially" either one. And that's fortunate, not unfortunate.

Back to Psychology Today generally. This is the third post in which I've criticized the magazine-- the previous two concerned presentation of atheism and sexual harassment, respectively. I disliked the treatment of atheists as though they had done something to earn the very real prejudice that exists against them in America, and of women who dislike being propositioned by strangers (hey look, there's that again) as being irrational and prudish. I also made fun of the tendency to illustrate the predominant psychological topic being addressed in so many issues of the magazine with a cover photo involving some kind of manipulation of an attractive white female model, and the theme of presenting every phenomenon discussed as being some kind of new revelation for psychologists. Gilbert suggested that I hold Psychology Today to too high a standard, that it's not a journal, and it's for people who know nothing about psychology. Fair enough, but are these psychology know-nothings a group comprised of white Christian straight men? I ask not because I'm opposed to fluffy articles in magazines, but because it sure seems like this particular fluff has that particular...well, flavor to it. 

If you are a person who really knows nothing about psychology, I would encourage you to...keep reading my blog. No, I'm kidding-- you should keep reading my blog because it's just generally quality stuff. If you enjoy pop psychology because it's fun and illuminating, there are a host of places to find it on the web-- so many that I'd hardly know where to start in listing them. If you're looking for brief and easily understandable stories on current psychological research in print, I would say to go with Scientific American: Mind. Only six issues a year, but every one of them packed with insights into psychology and neuroscience that are actually informative and comprehensible at the same time (though they really need to make an app of it). Again, there is nothing wrong with fluffy psychology-- it's just that you can't, or shouldn't, provide fun at the expense of accuracy or with the added "bonus" of bolstering prejudices. That's alienating to readers who don't share those prejudices or are even the target of them, and it's irresponsible in terms of helping those who do have those prejudices get rid of them. 

What's wrong with "Don't rape"

This post is about why I don't like this sign:

Trigger warning: A detailed discussion of rape and morality to follow.

Maybe you've seen it making the rounds on Facebook or Tumblr. It's popped up for me a few times, and each time I cringe, but don't comment to explain why because I'm afraid that my comments will be interpreted to suggest that I disagree with it. I don't, but I need to some room to say what my problem with it is.

First, I get what the sign (and the person holding it, though I have no idea who she is) is trying to say. The ever-present concern with advising women on how to protect themselves from being raped is that you run the risk of treating rape like a natural disaster. Like some act of God (no, I'm not going to delve too deeply into that) that is just going to happen, no matter what we do, but here are some measures you can take to make it less likely to happen to you. Like rape is a thing that happens; it's not a thing that some people do to other people. That's a really bad way to portray it, because it removes the agency from the rapists. If you hear someone complaining about blaming the victim, that's what she's talking about-- all responsibility for a rape belongs on the rapist, and there are a lot of ways, some of them bizarrely well-intentioned, that end up placing at least some of it on the victim instead. She shouldn't have been out drinking late. She shouldn't have been so easy with other guys. She shouldn't have allowed that guy to take her home instead of her boyfriend. He or she shouldn't have committed a crime and gotten sent to prison-- prison rape is a phenomenon that is often celebrated for males and ignored for females, and I'm not sure which is worse. Even for people who are rapists themselves-- there were "jokes" flying around on Friday about Jerry Sandusky's fate in prison after being convicted of child abuse, and also attempts to shame those making the jokes. The shamers understood that if you are willing to excuse rape under any circumstance, even or especially to laugh about it happening to someone who committed it himself, you detract from the seriousness of rape against every victim. You add a little bit of credibility to the claim that any of them deserved it, and that is unacceptable.

That's clear and simple, or at least it should be. I prefer things to be clear and simple, as most people do. I favor simplicity to the extent that I think if you can't explain something simply you probably don't really understand it yourself, which is not a predominant view in academia but it does explain why my dissertation was short. So you'd think I would be a big fan of the sign above, but I can't be, because this is a case in which ambiguity is really important. Ambiguity should always be cut out of the picture except when you can't, and I think this is a time when you can't. Here's why:

Rapists don't always know they're rapists. So telling them "Don't rape" will not work, because they don't realize it applies to them. 

Yes, really. In order to unpack that I'm going to need to compare rape to murder, but I hope it's clear in which regards I think they're similar and in which I think they are different. See, murder is wrongful killing. The dictionary says it's illegal killing, but you and I both know that murder would still be murder even if it wasn't against the law. We know what abortion foes are talking about when they call abortion murder, even if we don't agree with them. We know what PETA means when it says that people who wear fur or eat meat are accessories to murder, even if we do one or both ourselves. Killing, however, is not always wrong and even abortion foes and PETA are aware of that. The same people who oppose abortion are often just fine with soldiers killing each other on the battlefield or being sent to the electric chair after receiving a death sentence, and they generally would not say no to a big juicy steak if you set one in front of them. The same people who refuse the steak, oppose all war, and regard the death penalty as abhorrent likely see nothing wrong with pulling the plug on someone in a persistent and final vegetative state, mentally. Possibly they would also regard it as acceptable to allow a person in constant pain with no solutions to end his or her life, though the war-mongering meat-eating abortion opponent might shriek in protest. Killing is not necessarily wrong. 

Sex is also not necessarily wrong-- you're probably not enjoying the fact that I feel compelled to point this out, because sex should never be wrong. But sex with a child is wrong, and sex with an adult unwilling partner is wrong. It's so wrong that a lot of opponents of both of these things want to claim that it's not even sex, because it's not "about" sexual desire. It's about power, they say. I get why they say that, and I think it goes to the heart of what's so wrong about sex without consent-- it robs the victim of his/her ability to have control over his/her own body. It takes that control away, and places it squarely in the hands of the rapist. It makes the victim's body simply a tool for the rapist to use, and in doing so the rapist utterly dehumanizes his/her victim. The rapist renders him/her a non-person, and the victim has to live with the fact of having experienced that for the rest of his/her life. Even if the victim can't comprehend it at the time of the event, he/she will have this knowledge later. That's why it's wrong, even if the experience involves no physical damage or overt threat of such. That's why it's still rape even if the victim doesn't emerge bruised and bloody, or was fourteen years old and not six. That's why consent matters. 

I apologize for saying what probably seems blatantly obvious, and you may think I'm insulting your intelligence just now. If that's the case I really am sorry, but the fact remains that it's not obvious to everyone. It's not obvious to people who compare sex between people of the same gender to sex between an adult and a child or an adult and an animal, and it's not obvious to rapists. Yes, they might get what's wrong with leaping out of a dark alley and attacking some woman walking by, but that's not how most rapes happen. Most rapes are called "acquaintance rapes" because they happen between people who know each other. People who have spent time together before, know each other's names, may have even expressed an interest in dating. I don't think that the men (usually men) in these situations who force sex on a woman generally think that what they're doing is rape. They think it's "rough sex," or not even that-- that the woman who said no, or was unconscious or very drunk at the time, or was underage but seemed like she wanted it, and had had sex before, was either a willing partner or a partner who didn't need to be willing. And they apparently think this a lot:
If a survey asks men, for example, if they ever “had sexual intercourse with somone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances,” some of them will say yes, as long as the questions don’t use the “R” word. . . 
The men in your lives will tell you what they do. As long as the R word doesn’t get attached, rapists do self-report. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. He’s telling you how he sees it. The guy who says, “bros before hos”, is asking you to make a pact. 
The Pact. The social structure that allows the predators to hide in plain sight, to sit at the bar at the same table with everyone, take a target home, rape her, and stay in the same social circle because she can’t or won’t tell anyone, or because nobody does anything if she does. The pact to make excuses, to look for mitigation, to patch things over — to believe that what happens to our friends — what our friends do to our friends — is not (using Whoopi Goldberg’s pathetic apologetics) “rape-rape”. 
So the solution, as I see it, is not to say "Don't rape." Or rather, not to say just that. You absolutely have to say what rape is and what's wrong with it as well, because some people really don't know. And you have to say it often, and have to say it to your friends. You have to say it so that they don't have a Pact, and don't operate under the illusion that they do. It isn't good enough to simply hate rapists and publicly wish for every horrible thing you can think of (including rape) to happen to them-- that's allowing the most obvious and acknowledged perpetrators of sexual violence to act as scapegoats for the rest, for the "accidental" rapists. It's actually disturbing rather than touching to see explicit declarations of how much someone would like to punish a convicted rapist, especially a child molester, when they come from men who generally seem to regard women's sexual consent...loosely. It suggests that their regard is more for women and children's "innocence" than their autonomy. Hint: rape isn't bad because it leaves a person tainted. It's bad because he/she didn't choose it. Yes, being raped can certainly make a person feel tainted, but that's an artifact of both his/her control having been taken away and the bizarre, sad cultural construct of sexual purity which says that sex-- especially virginity-removing sex-- somehow permanently changes a person, usually a woman, into something...lesser. Something worldly, and therefore a little more profane and a little less sacred. Sex is necessary according to this thinking because we can't make the babies without it (yet), but it lowers a person-- especially if they have a lot of it, or enjoy it too much, or have no intention of making babies using it, ever. This is called puritanism, and it's the friend of pastor and pornographer alike.

But I digress. Point being...we can't just say "Don't rape." We may not be able to stop it altogether, like we're not going to stop murder, but we can do a lot more toward that end by articulating what it is, why it's wrong, and not accommodating the thinking that enables it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Don't tell me to smile

This piece on Jezebel really struck some chords, both in itself and because of some of comments from women sharing their experiences. Really, guys, telling a strange woman-- or even an acquaintance or co-worker-- to smile is a creepy thing to do. No need to feel bad about it, just read for some explanation and then please try to not do it. Some perspectives:
Men who ask this question don't want to know the answer. They want to disarm you. They want you to think, "Oh dear, I didn't even realize that my sourpuss lips were putting a damper on this poor gentleman's day" and guilt you into making a conscious effort to be nicer - ideally, to the man in front of you, who has shamed you into being nice in the first place. It's Move #93 in the playbook for how men take advantage of women who have low self-esteem and that's what pisses me off about it.
Also, fuck you, I look mad because my face is naturally downturned when I'm not smiling. (Thanks for the reminder, btw.) Plus, do you really expect me to have a perma-grin plastered on while I'm doing menial data entry on my computer?
I'm not smiling because I'm thinking about the fact that men think of women as decorations, without inner lives.
There was this one time where I'd just come from the doctor's office where I'd been diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy and injected with chemo drugs to "dissolve" that pregnancy. I'd just lost my fucking baby. I hailed a cab to get home, and the driver harassed me for at least 10 minutes, asking why I wasn't smiling, to smile because I'd feel better. I told him I'd got some really bad news. Didn't deter him in the least. 
It's none of anyone's damn business. Stop telling people to smile when you know nothing about them.
Sometimes I get this gem from guys at parties/work, and it was immensely satisfying when I came up with a response.
Creepy Guy: "You know, you'd be pretty if you smiled more."
Me: "You'd be smarter if you kept your mouth shut." 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I didn't tell him not to murder, that it would assuredly land him on death row...that would be mean.

Do you recall those pastors who made it into the news lately for making outlandishly bigoted statements about homosexuals from the pulpit lately in the wake of Obama's statement of support for gay marriage, and were recorded doing so?

Well, you might be gratified to know that, as CNN's Belief blog tells it, harsh anti-gay preaching alarms gay rights supporters and Christian conservatives alike. Yep, that's right:
The incidents drew outrage and condemnation from gay rights supporters. 
But they also left many Christians uncomfortable – even those who call themselves conservative. 
One leading expert on American Protestantism has a simple explanation for why some pastors preach against homosexuality while others go further, encouraging violence against gay people.
"There is a significant percentage who think it's a sin," Ed Stetzer said of homosexuality. "And there are a small minority who are stupid."
Stupid, you say? Is that the problem?
Many conservative Christians would agree with pastors such as Worley and Knapp that homosexual behavior is fundamentally wrong, Stetzer said. 
But that doesn't mean they support them or their sermons, he added. 
"If you asked, they would say that's really unhelpful and stupid," he said. 
Yes, stupid. Got it. Okay, but isn't there more to it than that?
But the Rev. Robin Lunn said these preachers are much worse than that. She calls such pastors "genocidal." 
"If someone is talking about rounding up me and all my kind in a pen, what is the difference between that and what is happening in Syria and Sudan and what happened in Germany and Poland during World War II?" asked Lunn, executive director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. 
"We are talking about people who believe somehow that the Second Coming is connected to a Final Solution," said Lunn, a lesbian, using the Nazi term for the mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust. 
"I think these men expressed something that many Baptist preachers think," Lunn said. "We need to stand up and denounce this powerfully." 
Her group campaigns for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion across all Baptist churches. 
Oh, so not just stupid, but wrong. The problem isn't in the fact that they said it, or how they said it, but that they think it in the first place. Is that it?
One of the most respected voices in conservative Christianity agrees with Lunn, up to a point. 
"The Gospel does not condemn homosexuals, it condemns homosexuality," said R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "The Bible makes clear that homosexuality is a sin, in the context of making clear that every person is a sinner." 
What preachers such as Worley and Knapp are doing wrong, he said, is that they are "not merely rendering a moral judgment on homosexuality but extending it to the condemnation of people. They are speaking with a certain venom and hatred." 
He called their sermons "reprehensible." 
And, he said, "they are doing grave harm to the cause of conservative Christianity by speaking messages of hate that obscure the message of the church." 
"What you're seeing here is a very dangerous fringe that does not represent conservative Christianity in America," he said.
Hmm. Nope, it looks like the problem really is just that those pastors are stupid. Yes, homosexuality is a sin, but hey-- we're all sinners! So having sex with another man or another woman is just like one of the other bad things that humans do everyday, like lying or stealing! And yes, Christians who do these things know they're sinful, so they repent for them, whereas homosexuals don't believe that what they're doing is sinful so they don't repent, and hence presumably won't be granted salvation and will be cast into hell when they die...but that's all!  No need to get all hatey about it by actually concluding what any normal person would about someone who deserves eternal torture, and deeming it appropriate to condemn that person from the pulpit-- that's just reprehensible. What you're supposed to do is keep your dedicated conviction that that these unknowing and unrepentant sinners will burn in eternal agony after they die as punishment for their behavior to yourself, rather than taking the logical action of speaking loudly about the horribleness of their lives and the grave peril their souls are in, because that would be hateful. Believing precisely that but keeping quiet about it, not proclaiming it for all who need to hear this very-important-if-true message, is the way to go.

After all, we wouldn't want to be stupid.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gender identification in video games, part 2

So. My post on this topic yesterday was rushed, and that's unfortunate because it's not the best idea to rush through a discussion comparing video games to pornography...especially when the subject of depicting attempted rape comes up. Sorry about that. I'm going to work through things a bit more thoroughly here.

The idea that pornography is about the viewer inserting him or herself into the role of someone in the movie is not a new one, and works pretty well to explain some things that otherwise seem mysterious-- such as why male porn actors tend to be so well-endowed. This doesn't seem to have a purpose when you consider that the viewers of porn are most often straight males, who presumably don't have an interest in the penis size of the guy on the screen. Unless, that is, they're watching while imagining themselves to be him-- the man on the screen, doing whatever he is doing to the woman on the screen. Then it becomes important because they're not lusting after the man's genitalia; they're actually viewing it as their own equipment. The man's appearance apart from this doesn't matter, because again he is not an object of attraction for our straight male viewer-- he's a stand-in. Some straight men dislike even the presence of this stand-in and restrict themselves to "lesbian" (scare quotes because sex between two women filmed for straight men is not the same as sex between two women filmed for women) porn, but still the presumption is that the viewer is actually or potentially involved in some way. They're either having sex for him or their sex is about to include him, or both. This also explains why porn for straight men often isn't appealing to women-- we don't necessarily want to project ourselves into the role of that woman on the screen, who is doing things and having things done to her that don't look very fun, and whose primary job is to look good (to straight men) while doing them, though her partner's appearance may leave much to be desired.

Yellow Valkyrie
shot the food!
Now. I'm not going to say that playing video games is, for a woman, like watching straight porn made for men...but there are similarities. If you're female and you refuse to play any video game that involves playing a male character, you probably aren't playing a lot of games. RPGs often give you a choice of gender, but not always. Or they will choose a gender for you if you want to play a certain class-- remember Gauntlet, when you had the choice of being a male elf archer, a male human warrior, a male human wizard, or a female human valkyrie? I was quite happy to play any of the above (especially the arcade version, with four kids lined up in front of their respective joysticks, playing on the same machine), but my brothers weren't. Even a tiny collection of pixels vaguely resembling a top-down view of a female fighter wasn't desirable to play. Of course, on the intro screen she looked like this:
Highest armor class...because of the shield, I guess.
In 1985 I wasn't old enough to give a lot of thought to why a female fighter would be clad in a bikini, and have skinny arms and waist and ample cleavage-- I just knew that boys didn't want to play her. Later I would learn that sometimes boys do want to play female characters, but in that case it's generally because of her physical attributes, and by that I don't mean her rippling muscles indicating great strength. Most people play World of Warcraft in third person, which means that instead of seeing the world through the eyes of the character (first person), they see the back of their character running around. It's not at all uncommon to hear a guy who plays a female character in WoW explain it by saying "Look, if I have to watch someone's ass move back and forth, I want it to be a hot girl's!" Even so, there are players who actually are suspicious of anyone who plays characters of another gender because they think it means that person secretly wants to be that gender-- though for some reason, they don't seem to be apply this thinking and conclude that people secretly really want to be druids, mages, rogues, and so on.

If you assumed that every woman who plays a male character secretly wants to be male, you'd have a lot of aspiring transsexuals on your hands. Females play males for a lot of reasons: Sometimes they don't have a choice. Sometimes they just enjoy role-playing (as a lot of guys do too). Sometimes they would prefer that no one know that they're female because they're afraid of being harassed, which is a reasonable fear to have. Just being on the internet is an incentive to hide your sex in order to avoid the hassle of being antagonized for it, and that goes doubly, triply so for how you present yourself in-game. You might not have the option if choosing a female character, but if you do, you will very likely only be allowed to choose one who is...well-endowed, and has selections of armor that accentuate or just outright reveal this. This will get you hit on in-game. If you are able, and decide to go against this and play a character who is less conventionally attractive, you will be harassed for playing someone who is not hot enough

If anyone tries to tip her, they'll regret it.
Just as an aside here, a lot of people are very offended by the word "cunt," and consider it about as sexist as an insult can get. I get where they're coming from, but for me a far more pernicious word is "cow." "Cow" is not even an obscenity, which makes it seem odd to be more offended by it. But precisely for that reason it's also used a lot more often, and exclusively for women. That being the case I do sometimes wonder what Blizzard was thinking when they decided to create a race of playable characters based on minotaurs (man-bull hybrids) called Tauren, knowing that people would play both male and female. What did they think people would call the females? Don't get me wrong-- I love the Tauren. I think they're beautiful and powerful, and I appreciate their Native American-esque culture which seems fondly reminiscent rather than like caricature. It's just that being referred to over and over as a "cow" gets rather stale. To be fair to Blizzard and every other MMO developer, however, they have problems of this kind whenever they try to invent a new race. You'll notice that the "cow" at right doesn't appear to have udders (and if she does, they're well-hidden indeed!); instead she has human-style breasts of a conventionally attractive size and shape. That's most likely a concession to both male and female players, because I don't think anyone wants to play a character with mammary glands that resemble those of any non-human mammal. That's a bridge too far even for those of us who are comfortable playing a human-animal hybrid otherwise-- when Blizzard introduced the next such race, the human/wolf combination called Worgen, there was a lot of disagreement about how to make them look, but I seriously doubt any of it concerned what kind of breasts the females should have.

One of my favorite games, which I won't claim to be in the top 25 or so best video games of all time but which entertained me thoroughly, was Sid Meier's Pirates for the PC. Pirates was originally published in 1987, but I didn't discover it until the revamped 2004 edition came out. Pirates was great because it was an open world game in which you had a basic plot line and goals-- you played a young man whose family had been kidnapped by pirates years ago for being unable to pay a debt. Your character had grown up, become a pirate himself, and was on a mission to locate and recover them, along with as much gold and notoriety as he could manage, and then give up sailing the open seas for a respectable job and home in the Caribbean, at which point the game ends. You could retire in this way at pretty much any point in the game, but the object was to do so after having accomplished as much as possible while you were still young and able (the passage of years does age you and decreases your abilities, so time is of the essence). Your performance would be tabulated at the end in terms of how many family members you'd managed to rescue, how many notorious pirates with bounties on their heads you'd managed to best in combat, how many historical relics you'd managed to dig up, how many accolades you'd received from the countries represented in settlements on the islands, and...whether you managed to bag a hot wife. Not just a wife; a hot one. 

Now, context-- it's a game about pirates. Egalitarianism is not a reasonable expectation, though this depiction of real historical events is about as close to reality as the recent Pirates: Band of Misfits movie. Pirates are not presented as good people exactly, but as sort of chaotic neutral people who could be personally quite nice and loyal to their crews but ultimately served their own interests. And one interest is persuading the daughter of a high-ranking and wealthy official of a Dutch, English, Spanish, or French settlement on the islands to marry you. This is accomplished by giving her gifts, dancing with her, and eventually besting the fiance (which she apparently acquired in your absence) in a sword fight. The daughters look different according to their nationality of origin, and also come in three varieties: rather plain, attractive, and beautiful. 

You get the feeling that if "rather plain" took off her shawl and unbuttoned a few buttons she might become worth a few more fame points, huh? Kind of like one of those "nerdy girl to knockout" movies where you can tell what's going to happen right away because a pair of glasses, no makeup, and unkempt hair don't do much to disguise things. Oh, and of course some clothing shortening/tightening/removal will happen along the way. 

"Beautiful" has it over the two in that she's got a collarbone that could cut glass and generally more closely resembles a "real" housewife of Orange County, which is a bit odd considering the minimal availability of plastic surgery in the year 1660. I didn't remember this, but according to a guide I looked up there actually is a benefit in romancing rather plain and/or attractive daughters in addition to beautiful ones, aside of course from their sparkling personalities-- they will give you gifts like spyglasses or fencing gloves, whereas beautiful ones will not. Apparently they're above it? Plain daughters are the first to actually notice you and be willing to dance when you're just starting out as a pirate, whereas the other two won't give you the time of day. That means that you get a chance to practice working on your steps with that homely mayor's daughter from Caracas before attempting to land the hottie governor's girl from St. Kitt's. In a blog post called "Bigamy," one player describes how he successfully wooed and married a fair-haired beautiful girl from an English town, earned his ten points, and returned later to find that the town had fallen to invading Spaniards. When he went to visit the new Spanish governor, he discovered that his wife now looked quite a bit different:
She's changed from being English to being Spanish, but she's still my wife. In other words, I'm married to "the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga" — whoever that may be! 
What an amazing concept: being married not to a person, but to whatever person is pointed at by a reference! You could do strange things if that worked in real life: "I am married to whomever is in this bed with me" or "I am married to whomever pays me the most this month". Wow! 
Oh well, at least I have a goal now: attack enough Spanish shipping that they put a price on my head, then attack Tortuga, install an English governor and change my wife back to her original incarnation.
I'm just trying to imagine an action/adventure game in which your character is female, and one of the achievements in the game is to find, woo, and eventually marry a man who is "handsome," as opposed to "attractive" or "rather plain" (but go ahead and get friendly with those other two as well, because they'll give you things). You don't have to pursue the romance option in Pirates; you can avoid it altogether if you want. But you'll suffer both in the process and in the end, because the daughters (at least the plain and attractive ones) can give you very useful things, and if you decide to retire while still a bachelor your total legacy will be diminished. It's a nice element that you have a learn an entirely separate skill, dancing, in order to have any luck at all with the ladies, but dancing with you-- a fly-by-night pirate who is seeing god knows how many other governor's daughters at the same time-- must truly be the highlight of their otherwise dreary, island-bound lives. Imagine if things were reversed.

If things were reversed, how many guys would play the game? I'm guessing not many. But I'm also guessing they would bitch mightily if the game was otherwise incredibly well-made and enticing enough to make them want to play it, except for that aspect that female gamers face all of the time, which is being made to be the characters you're playing and not just controlling them, even if they're the opposite sex.

That's why, in spite of all of the entirely legitimate concerns people are voicing about the attempted rape of Lara Croft being too close to home, too real, too unreal in terms of how she deals with it (rape, and attempted rape, not being things most women can just fight off or which should be presented as challenges that make them stronger) spite of all that, I don't think it's necessarily a horrible idea to have that element in the game. You would just need to make damn sure that the player actually identifies with Lara first, actually feels like they are her, in order for it to be of any benefit. Which...okay, is kind of a pipe dream to have about a video game, and one whose primary audience is probably majority male, and young at that. Hmm. Guess I just talked myself out of that one.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Video games are like porn

Yep, I'm going to make the comparison. But perhaps not how you think. I am not talking about this:
Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys?
Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz. 
Every compulsive gambler, alcoholic or drug addict will tell you that they want increasingly more of a game or drink or drug in order to get the same quality of buzz. 
Video game and porn addictions are different. They are "arousal addictions," where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement. In traditional drug arousal, conversely, addicts want more of the same cocaine or heroin or favorite food. 
The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.
I'm talking about this:
As a gamer, I do not play Batman: Arkham City to protect Batman. I don't play it to admire Batman, to lust over Batman, to root for Batman or to vindicate Batman. I do not, in short, play the game for any reason that depends upon the relationship between me the individual gamer and Batman the character on the screen. 
I play Batman because, ludicrous though it may be, I GET TO BE THE GODDAMN BATMAN. And the game succeeds at that, because the game WANTS you to be the Goddamn Batman. The way the game feeds you information is specifically designed to minimize any intrusion upon that blessed illusion of identity. 
Back to the Kotaku article, and the line I want to focus on: 
"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character." 
Now, for one thing, I'd love to know where the heck that supposed information comes from. I know plenty of female gamers who DO project themselves into the character. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose that 'when people play Lara', what's really meant is 'when male gamers play Lara'. 
It seems to me - and I could be wrong - that the approach here has been to try to capitalize upon the supposed disassociation between male gamers and Lara Croft. Instead of helping the player immerse themselves in the character (as was done with Batman above), the male player is encouraged to see himself as a sort of benevolent deity separate and apart, a guardian spirit who not only guides Lara's actions for her benefit but protects her from bad guys. 
If true, if if iffety-if IF, this is a frigging tragedy. And it's moving in the opposite direction from the one we should be moving in. The game should be doing its utmost, through all the subtle tricks of the games writer's art, to immerse us in Lara's character, because Lara Croft kicks arse. Being Lara Croft should feel as exhilarating as being Batman, or Nathan Drake, or any other character whose skin we really get inside. We shouldn't have our role as The Gamer defined for us as if we were a separate character.
Furthermore, forcing male gamers out of Lara Croft's shoes is encouraging them not to empathise and identify with a female character. That's a hell of a waste. There are so many stories that could be told from a woman's point of view, so many narrative doors that could be opened here, and yet we're told that we have to default to a presumed 'male protector' point of view even when the lead character is female? 
To deny that the porn viewer projects him/herself into the corresponding role on the screen is folly. Likewise to deny that the video game player projects him/herself in the same way. Sure, it's possible to separate yourself from that person whose back you continually watch as they cavort through temples, jungles, military bases, alien deserts, and dystopian city streets, or whose gun barrel you stare down while doing this. But it's better all around if you really become that character while you're playing. And if the reason for suddenly pulling up on the reins on that impulse is because the character in question is female, well then... male gamers, take a moment to think about how often we females do that in reverse.

If you're wonder what the fuss is about Lara Croft, these should help:
Lara Croft and rape stories: breaking down the bitch
Tomb Raider Creators Deny Attempted ‘Rape’ Scene Is An Attempted Rape Scene
Lara Croft Will Be Threatened With Rape In the Next Tomb Raider—But Don’t Worry, Guys, You Can Rescue Her
An Open Letter to the Guys Who Told Me They Want to See Lara Croft Get Raped

I'm going to break the rule of "People who haven't played a game really should refrain from commenting on the ethics/propriety of things depicted in it and how they're depicted, no matter how much they know about it otherwise, and even if they're avid players of all kinds of other games." I believe that rule is important because Combat for the Atari 2600 involved mass slaughter on a grand scale, even though it was conducted by shooting small squares at larger formations of squares, and you simply can't literally describe what it's possible to do in most video games that people of all ages (above, you know, six or so) enjoy without making them sound like exercises in sadism and terrorism. So it's imperative that the person doing the describing must have a good handle on the context of the event being described, what it looks like, what the mood is, what it's possible for his/her character to do, what they can earn points/achievements/whatever for doing, even what music is playing...that's all important. Context is key.

I'm going to break that rule to say that it's not necessarily a bad thing to depict a female character-- your female character-- as being threatened with rape in a video game. Though if you're going to do it, people far old than six should be the ones playing. And I think that it shouldn't be the occasion for people who would ordinarily be thinking and acting as if they are their character to suddenly disassociate themselves and because that character's "protector." Yes, I know I say this in a culture in which there's no shortage of guys who will refuse to play a female character, flat out. But when that's the only option; when the choice is either to play a woman or not play at all, well....who knows?

Here's the trailer, if you're interested. SFW, no actual rape depicted:

Women who don't like sexual aggression from strangers are prudish children. Or childish prudes. Or something.

I don't like Psychology Today, part 2:

So Elyse of Skepchick wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago describing an incident that followed a talk on vaccination she gave at Skepticamp in Ohio. You can read the entire thing here, but to put it briefly, a couple she didn't know aside from a friend request on Facebook approached her after the talk and handed her a card. A business card-like card, which the male half of the couple gave her before the two of them proceeded to vacate the premises. After they'd gone, Elyse turned the card over, noticed a nude picture of the couple on the other side of it along with an invitation to hook up with them and contact information for such, and realized that she had been propositioned for a threesome by strangers out of nowhere while doing her job.


As you might expect, this was a disconcerting experience for Elyse, and in that post she carefully walks through the details of why that is, and why this is not the kind of thing you should do at a conference. Considering that sexual conduct at skepticism conferences is such a big topic right now, I was happy that she did that and didn't just post an account of what happened accompanied by a scan of the card, saying "See? See this? This is the kind of thing we're talking about! Don't do it!" Nope, she articulated what made her feel uncomfortable and why. And she did it, I would note, without any mention of whether it constitutes "harassment."

Unlike Dr. Marty Klein, who wrote about this incident-- yes, I think it's fair to say that it's this incident he was writing about-- as apparently heard third or fourth hand via a drunken discussion with someone who skimmed the post a couple of weeks ago and might or might not have already decided that Elyse is a hysterical female bent on destroying a conference over a slight, because that is how Klein portrays things. I say I think it's fair to say he was writing about this incident and not a "composite," as he claims, for a few reasons. First because the description is quite detailed, and the details of time and place and person align to Elyse's experience-- as she says, "Now, to be fair, he doesn’t name me, so it could be another particular blogger in her mid-30s who was handed a swingers card at a conference. I’m sure there are hundreds of us around." Second and third because the caveat that the description was a "composite" was apparently added after the fact, and I know for certain that some important wording was changed which made the description align more closely to Elyse's actual experience, and there's no reason to do this if it wasn't intended to describe her in the first place.

That important wording? Klein's article originally said that the entirely hypothetical couple had "gotten friendly with" the woman prior to handing her the invitation-to-a-threesome card. Now it says they simply "approached" her. More accurate, yes, and it makes Klein's depiction of her reaction seem much less justified. It also was apparently edited in the Psychology Today article without any acknowledgement of such, after Elyse noticed it and said something. Here's what she said:
Klein starts off with one tiny change in the details of my experience, one tiny change that alters the entire context of the situation. In Klein’s version of my story, “John” and “Mary” have reason to believe I might be interested in joining them to socialize our genitals. Now, if by “gotten friendly” he means “accepted Facebook friend request” and “stood in front of a room while the couple was present and delivered a talk about how everyone needs to get Tdap”, then yes, I concede, we “got friendly”. But I doubt that’s what he meant. What I think he means is that I was asking for it.
I’m not the one with the PhD in psychology, but I’m fairly certain that if this couple thought that my statement that most children catch pertussis from unvaccinated adults was me secretly dropping subliminal messages that I’d like to get tight and shiny under the stairs with them, then the problem with this interaction does not begin or end with me.
"Tight and shiny under the sheets." I like that.

Anyway, the gist of Klein's article is he basically to portrays this "woman" as prudish, uptight, and vindictive, and the details he changed in the story to make it differ from Elyse's actual experience are all in service of that end. Of course it would still be inappropriate to hand a card bearing a sexual proposition to someone who is prudish, uptight, and vindictive, but it makes her less sympathetic and her feelings of discomfort less easy to empathize with.

Klein makes great effort to argue that "the woman" was not harassed; she received unwanted sexual attention. Elyse points out that she was never talking about the legal definition of sexual harassment; she was talking about what made her feel uncomfortable at a conference and why.

Klein suggests that "the woman" could learn a lesson from history when other bearers of two X chromosomes had it much worse off. Elyse points out that just because things were worse then doesn't mean they're dandy now. The aggravating thing about this gambit is that someone tries to pull it every single time the topic comes up-- "What are you complaining about? Women had/have it worse at time X/place Y!"-- and the absurd thing is that this same argument applies just as well to absolutely anything someone is complaining about, unless of course they happen to be complaining about the worst thing that happened, anywhere, ever. I guess people who are burning in Hell are the only ones who can legitimately complain.

Klein says that "the woman" responded to the incident by trashing the conference at which it happened and discouraging other women from attending it in the future. Elyse points out that this is simply bollocks. As are a lot of other things in his article, but you really should go ahead and read Elyse's full reply for more on that.

Klein's profile on Psychology Today reads:
Marty Klein has been a certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Palo Alto, California for 30 years, working with men, women, and couples on issues of anger, guilt, shame, and power, as well as orgasm, erection, fantasies, desire, S-&-M, pornography, and sexual orientation. 
Klein has written seven books and over 200 articles on sexuality. He is frequently quoted by the popular press, most recently in The New York Times and on ABC-TV’s 20/20, Nightline, and Penn & Teller. He is outspoken about many popular and clinical ideas about sexuality, decrying psychology’s gender stereotypes, sex-negativity, and what he calls “the Oprah-ization of therapy.” He is one of America’s best-known voices opposing the dangerous concept of “sex addiction.” 
"Penn & Teller" actually refers to Penn and Teller's HBO show Bullshit (if we're really not repressed, let's go ahead and say the word), on which Klein appeared in an episode on discussing pornography. As a supportive talking head, he quite rightly pointed out that there is no evidence that watching porn disposes people to sexual violence. Great. Promoting sexual happiness and decrying gender stereotypes and sex-negativity? Great. Making women out to be nun-like ice statues if they register disapproval about being sexually propositioned by strangers? Not so great.

I've written before about how women have this peculiar thing about them-- they like to feel safe. Imagine that. They're no less sexual than men; it's just that women who are openly sexual face a double whammy of danger. They face the real, physical danger of someone attacking them (and the attack being dismissed because hey, she was asking for it), but they also face the social danger of being stigmatized as dirty, stupid, or generally worth less than women who are chaste and modest. It is, of course, possible for women to be overly aggressive with their sexuality-- as was the case with the female half of this couple that propositioned Elyse-- but if they object to other people being overly aggressive with their sexuality, the problem is not with the woman objecting.

There's a sort of "damned if you do; damned if you don't" aspect to that. You can browbeat a woman into being sexual when she doesn't want to, but it will be feeding on her insecurity rather than an authentic enjoyment of such on her part. On the other hand if she is authentically being sexual for her own sake, there is always someone waiting around to call her a slut for it. You would think that as a sex therapist Klein would know all of this, but instead he has opted for browbeating, and on extremely specious grounds no less. Propositioning a woman you don't know in an entirely non-sexual context does not make her feel safe. Don't do it. It's really that easy. That was the message of Elyse's original post, which bypassed Klein entirely-- assuming he ever actually read the thing, which is in doubt.

ETA: While I was writing this a number of edits to Klein's article have come to light, and are noted at the bottom of Elyse's reply.

ETA 2: Six words from Klein's article are now sticking in my craw: "A couple at last year's conference." As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Elyse blogged about her experience a couple of weeks ago. I believe it happened not long before that. This seems like an important discrepancy, and casts some doubt on whether it was really her story that he was focusing on. It would not surprise me in the least to find that there are multiple pairs of swinging couples who proposition people via "business" cards, at conferences and any other social occasion. It's possible that Klein never did actually read--or hear of-- Elyse's account. In which case, I apologize for accusations to the contrary. However, I think all other points still stand.

ETA 3: And one point that stands which I didn't really mention is the false equivalence regarding "unwanted attention." No, not all unwanted attention is created equal. If a sexual proposition from strangers merely counts as "unwanted attention" in the same manner as a visit from Mormon missionaries, then I suppose cat calls fall into that group as well. So a request to buy Girl Scout cookies when you're in a hurry is exactly the same as some guy in a car yelling that he wants to wear your vagina as a hat. No, I fundamentally reject that. Sexually propositioning someone out of nowhere is not a sign of openness and freedom; it's a signal that you are not concerned with that person's feelings of safety and might possibly be deranged. It's also quite commonly, I might note, a means of insulting them. Not all unwanted attention is equal, and I hate to sound like a broken record but it's hard to imagine someone other than a straight male suggesting it is.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Defenders of male imagery in gaming strike back

So, some of the people who took exception (let's call it that) to Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes vs. Women" Kickstarter project-- which has now been officially funded, to the final tune of $158, 917-- have started a project of their own. It's going to be another web video series, called "An analysis of male roles and misandry present in modern video game media" and hosted at Indiegogo rather than Kickstarter (I don't know why they made that choice exactly, but was interested to learn of another fundraising site with slightly looser rules about what kind of projects are allowed. So far as I can tell though, theirs would've fit Kickstarter's rules just as well.)

I'm interested. How could I not be? Misandry's a real thing. Distorted, harmful stereotypes of men are a real thing. And they exist in video games, no doubt.

What's the problem? Well...I watched the Google doc discussion in which this project was originally planned on Wednesday. So did Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, apparently, which resulted in this article-- and in the document eventually being deleted and replaced with a message to Kotaku notifying them that their journalism sucks (sorry, "sux), accompanied by a couple of bukkake pics which detracted slightly from the stated mission of fair and honest analysis of sexual stereotypes. The Indiegogo page explains:
In regards to the article in Kotaku that (voluntarily or not) attempted to disproved [sic] our credibility and undermine the project: the Google document that was flying around was, indeed, originally a way for the project leads to coordinate what the project was going to be about - for transparency, we left our document open for anyone to view and edit: A terrible mistake when the link was leaked in a group chat of 100+ people! As soon as we found out (as we were well beyond the stage of using the Google doc) the document was removed post-haste after being heavily vandalized with porn gifs - although, too late, somebody had tipped off Kotaku about it. We apologise deeply for the situation.

Here's the thing-- I don't know for sure and so can't say, but I'm just guessing that Sarkeesian's project is going to include some discussion of male tropes as well, because male and female tropes tend to show up together. You know, because the male power fantasy and the female sexual fantasy kind of depend on each other. I'm guessing that her project is called "Tropes vs. Women" and not "Sexist Tropes" because she thinks the ones about women are more harmful, not to deny that tropes about men exist. The statement of intent for the new, male-trope-specific project reads:
With the recent boom of indie game developers, videogames have become easier and easier to produce, something that used to take years and millions of dollars can be done with a zero budget in a matter of days with the same cultural impact and mainstream audience potential. So what happens when such a morally unrestricted form of entertainment starts accidentally spreading the wrong values?  
This video project will attempt to shed some light on the tremendous lack of variety in male character design, and how detrimental this becomes to a blossoming society that is growing accustomed to video games as a very real part of their lives. Such stale and stagnant design clashes vividly with the rainbow of personalities that are so abundant in real life, and seeing as how the hardware necessary has been available for a good few years, isn’t it about time that video games reflected the diversity of their audience?
Yes! Yes, it's about time. And frankly I'd love to hear suggestions about how this can be accomplished, about the "rainbow of personalities" currently missing in male video game characters that really should be depicted. Also presumably a rainbow of physical appearances, but that wasn't mentioned.

It's just...well, this isn't the most confidence-inspiring launch for such a project. It looks, on the face of it, like a bunch of dismissing, deflecting, and derailing. But I'd be happy to be mistaken about that.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The beauty of internet legal absurdity

If you don't already read Matthew Inman's webcomic The Oatmeal, or the group blog Popehat devoted to "law, liberty and leisure," here's an excellent reason to start. Ken of Popehat begins:
Yesterday afternoon, I started getting tweets and emails (to both my work and Popehat accounts) and Facebook messages tipping me to a bogus-lawsuit-threat-on-the-internet story. As of this writing I have received thirty-one tips and suggestions that I offer pro bono help to the recipient of the threat. For a while I was tempted to regard this as a reflection of my own notorious puissance, and my look-at-me-I'm-the-fucking-BATMAN attitude grew until it threatened to collapse into a noisy singularity of self-regard. 
Then I realized: the flood of mail is not a reflection of me. The flood of mail is a reflection of The Oatmeal being unspeakably awesome. I'm just the towel-boy they shout for to wipe the glistening beads of asskickery from The Oatmeal's noble brow. 
Turns out I'm OK with that. 
People were writing me because they know, from reading this or this, or from seeing the Popehat signal, or from posts sparring with bogus-lawsuit-threateners, that I offer and coordinate pro bono help for bloggers faced with bogus defamation threats. The Oatmeal, unfortunately, is now the victim of such a threat. 
No, wait. That's really not fair. Strike "victim" and "unfortunately."
That is simply the beginning. You must go and read the rest, and make absolutely sure to read Inman's shredding of the cease-and-desist-plus-give-us-lots-o'-cash letter he received. Also, at the end (currently) of Ken's post, a hastily-drawn picture from me of Phoenix Wright as an Ewok.

ETA: Boing Boing reports that the lawyer threatening Inman, Charles Carreon, may be engaging in some defamation of his own, and there's an editorial in The Guardian on the matter where Carreon's wife (?) posted some rather uncharitable things about Inman in the comments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sexist trolls, meet Streisand Effect

Not the kind of video game troll
I'm talking about
It's now nearly the end of the funding period for Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," and it has raised more than $100,000 over its initial goal. I don't want to detract from the validity of the idea itself or her ability to present it, but can't help but guess that a big chunk of that is from people who are sympathetic to the harassment she's had to deal with. Misogynistic trolls have in this case performed a Westboro Baptist Church-like function in drawing attention to something they hate through sheer petulant anger, and managing to help it flourish in the process. You're probably familiar with the WBC, but maybe not the fact that a lot of their protests (which they announce in advance) have been the occasion for fund-raising for gay rights groups that would not have otherwise received that money. In the same way, Sarkeesian's project has received far more attention than it probably otherwise would have due to the douchebaggery of its opponents. That's great for the project itself, which has become significantly more ambitious in light of the ballooning donations, but it has also elicited some interesting reflections from feminist observers.

Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue:
The comment I have seen repeated most often in conjunction with these stories is something I have wondered myself: What can we do about this? That’s a difficult question, and though I don’t have the faintest idea of what to do about the internet at large, I believe the climate within the gaming community, at least, could slowly be improved through the joint efforts of both developers and gamers. 
Developers, you are free to tell whatever stories and portray whatever characters you want. You have no fight from me there. But when you create a character, think about the message you are sending. Think about the example you are setting for your fanbase. Think about hatefests like the ones detailed here, and consider how your work might be encouraging them. Take, for example, the uproar against the Hitman trailer. Rob Fahey at GamesIndustry expertly tackled this one last week in an article entitled “Can’t We Discuss This Like Adults?” 
Let’s be absolutely clear that it’s [sexualized violence] which is the issue. It’s not the fact that there are nuns in the game who then turn out to be sexy nun assassins in suspender belts. You want sexy nun assassins in your game trailer? Be my guest. It looks ridiculous, and I don’t see them getting much assassinating done while wearing those heels, but if you think your target audience is the demographic slice of people who get turned on by poorly CG rendered assassins in habits and stiletto heels, go for it. Nor is the issue the fact that Agent 47 commits violent acts against women. He’s a hitman, assassins are attacking him, he kills them. That’s not the problem.
The problem is the interaction between those two things. The thought process of the creators of this trailer is naked for the world to see. Gamers like sexy women. Let’s have sexy women, and let’s make them sexy nuns because that’s edgy. You know what else is edgy? Having the dark anti-hero kill women, rather than the usual faceless male soldiers and thugs. That’ll get headlines. Let’s do that.
…The imagery is deliberately powerfully sexual. It’s also deliberately powerfully violent. Square Enix intended both of those things to be present in the imagery. I don’t think (wishful, perhaps) that they quite intended their interaction to be so horrific. In a society where 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence, Square Enix just released a video of violence against women presented as sexy and fetishised. That’s the issue. 
A few days after that article was posted, Hitman developer IO Interactive apologized for the trailer, tellingly stating that they were “surprised” by the negative reaction, because all they had intended was “to make something cool.” 
So, developers, consider your audience, and consider the social climate you’re wading into. Make your mark, but do so wisely. Remember the lessons of Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. You can ignore that, if you want. That’s your right. Only you can decide where the line between censorship and consideration lies. It’s a hard question, but it’s one that you need to ask yourselves with every game you make.
Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress:
But the whole incident is a reminder of how deeply some men are invested not simply in the structures that provide them tangible advantages, but in the conventions that let them wallow in culture that indulges their worst, stupidest impulses. And if folks are willing to fight this hard against someone doing criticism of culture, there are others who will do worse to preserve the laws that give them privilege in the world. Culture in this area, as in so many others, is a canary in a coal mine. And women who complain about online harassment aren’t being oversensitive: they’re trying to stop an ugly cycle before it spirals out of control. Both psychologically and substantively, it’s key to our ability to do our work. 
Jessica Coen at Jezebel:
We received a tip about this story last week and, to be honest, I shrugged. We didn't cover it. My job involves reading hundreds of emails and thousands of headlines every day and, ultimately, making a call on whether or not I should assign the story to one of the site's writers. I usually make that call pretty quickly, for reasons having to do with gut instincts and knowing that if I don't make a decision about something right away, it could be ages before I get to it again. 
So, yeah, I didn't even blink. And now, upon further reflection, that reaction makes me feel a little queasy. Not because Jezebel potentially missed a good story (though that concern is always there, even in my sleep), and not because I decided not to assign coverage. Rather, I'm queasy because of why I shrugged: I read about Anita Sarkeesian and my immediate reaction was, "This crap happens every damn day. Nothing new here. Nothing to see. Move along." 
Anjin Anhut at How Not To Suck At Game Design:
Misogyny in games is everywhere and almost as old as popular games are. I love games, I work in games, I play games, games are awesome, powerful and wonderful. But the way the games industry and community treats roughly 50% of the human population is a giant festering ugly tumor, right in our favorite cultures’s face. 
Considering the damage misogyny in games does to pop culture and to society at large (games are a large cultural force now), I find myself always flabbergasted at the consorted and massive efforts from gamers to keep things as disgusting as they are, whenever someone speaks up against it. 
Instead of joining forces with people, who care enough to make games better for all of us and, yes, help women get a better standing in society, gamers get defensive. They play the victim, rationalize, become offensive and even resort to hostile attacks and vandalism. 
This is not helping. It is generating additional damage to our culture, in fact. Whatever the aspect of games, the community or themselves it is, they get so protective about… they are completely poisoning and deforming it, by their own misguided actions defending misogyny in games. 
Alex at the border house:
It’s nice that the number of backers doubled once news of the harassment campaign started getting around. But the video game community needs to do more. It’s well past time for the video game community to own up to and condemn the fact that there is a subset of us dedicated to organized mob harassment of people who criticize games in any way, but particularly when it comes to social issues like misogyny, racism, and homophobia. It’s time to stop rolling our eyes about how awful gamers and nerds are. We are gamers and nerds, and this is our community. If you know someone who is involved in this sort of thing, tell them that it’s not cool. Condemn this sort of behavior on forums, on Twitter, wherever you have a voice. If you don’t feel safe doing those things, then don’t (safety is most important), but if you can, speak up. This is a perfect way for allies who want to do more to do so. Let harassers know they are the ones who aren’t welcome in video games, not the people who make thoughtful criticism out of love for the medium. Games don’t belong to them, and the community has no need for people who harass and try to silence criticism.

Quote of the day

From Jason Foscolo's blog Food Law:
At the NYT, Bittman evokes Mrs. Lovejoy in his support of the Bloomberg Soda Tax. I tend to stay away from policy on this blog, but Bloomberg’s soda ban perfectly crystalizes the absurdities of our food system. We pay farmers to overproduce the raw materials for our sweets, then we tax consumers to discourage them from eating it. The way I see it, when a state or city passes a Happy Meal toy ban or a soda tax, it is a repudiation of national agricultural policy. As I’ve noted before, smaller governments have no power to turn off the production spigot, so their only remaining option is to limit consumption. If you live in a “progressive” place that takes this tack, you are getting taxed twice. The longer we perpetuate the inconsistency, the more money we all waste. I’d like to see heavies like Bittman point their finger at policy makers instead of consumers, who are only doing what the government has enabled them to do.
Corn is the top crop for federal subsidy payments, to the tune of $73.8 billion since 1995, which accounts for the cheap ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup in the U.S. that makes all of those horrible-for-you large sodas possible.