Sunday, November 17, 2013

Feminism and male rape

Last night I made the worst decision ever about what to read right before bed: an article in the Guardian entitled The rape of men, on the practice of male-on-male rape as a weapon of war in Uganda. I think you should read it. I think everyone should read it, for many reasons. Unfortunately my attention was then taken by the discussion in the comments, which mostly revolves around the topic of how the suffering of these male victims of rape is not taken seriously, and they are not given the attention and help that they need, because feminism.

Yes, really.

Apparently this is feminism's fault because feminists insist on seeing men-- all men-- as the enemy, the perpetrators while women are the victims. The notion of men as victims, even of other men, conflicts with that, so feminists pretend that men don't get raped, or that it's okay when they do.

Note: I have never seen a feminist say anything like this.

What I have seen is feminists speaking about rapists as male as a default,  because most rapists by far are male. I have also seen feminists speaking of rape victims as female as a default, which is a lot more problematic. It's one thing to give most or all of your attention to one kind of rape victim; it's quite another to speak as if no other kind exists.

Most feminists I know do not view men as the enemy; they view rigid enforcement of gender roles as the enemy. And rigid enforcement of gender roles is why the Ugandan men in this article have been made to suffer well beyond and after their actual rapes, by the utter lack of understanding, sympathy, and support they have been given:
Today, despite his hospital treatment, Jean Paul still bleeds when he walks. Like many victims, the wounds are such that he's supposed to restrict his diet to soft foods such as bananas, which are expensive, and Jean Paul can only afford maize and millet. His brother keeps asking what's wrong with him. "I don't want to tell him," says Jean Paul. "I fear he will say: 'Now, my brother is not a man.'"   
It is for this reason that both perpetrator and victim enter a conspiracy of silence and why male survivors often find, once their story is discovered, that they lose the support and comfort of those around them. In the patriarchal societies found in many developing countries, gender roles are strictly defined. 
"In Africa no man is allowed to be vulnerable," says RLP's gender officer Salome Atim. "You have to be masculine, strong. You should never break down or cry. A man must be a leader and provide for the whole family. When he fails to reach that set standard, society perceives that there is something wrong." 
Often, she says, wives who discover their husbands have been raped decide to leave them. "They ask me: 'So now how am I going to live with him? As what? Is this still a husband? Is it a wife?' They ask, 'If he can be raped, who is protecting me?' There's one family I have been working closely with in which the husband has been raped twice. When his wife discovered this, she went home, packed her belongings, picked up their child and left. Of course that brought down this man's heart."
A gender role is an expectation on the part of your society that you will behave, appear, exist in a certain way because of your gender, which is the category you have been assigned because of your biological sex. People who reject gender roles partially or completely resist the idea that these societal job descriptions are binding. People who enforce gender roles insist that they are, and reject anyone who appears to violate them, deliberately or accidentally.

Such people may be viewed with anything from confusion to suspicion to patronizing sympathy to outright hate. Why? Because they didn't conform to an expectation. An expectation which may range from stereotypical to arbitrary, and yet all over the world is enforced via cultural norms and traditions, mandated by religious dogma, and codified in law.

That's not why these men were raped, but it's why they suffer in silence and continued fear.

It's why people joke about prison rape rather than gasping in horror at the thought of it.

It's at the root of homo- and transphobia, misogyny, and misandry. These are all forms of hatred and fear stemming from unfair to grossly inaccurate essentialist assumptions about what men and women are, and are supposed to be.

And it doesn't have to be this way. That is what bothers me most of all. We don't have to be this stupid and needlessly cruel. But clearly, whatever else you can say about it, gender essentialism certainly is popular.

We-- feminists, opponents of gender-based bigotry of all stripes-- want that to stop. Right? Don't we?

If're not on my side. And I sure as hell am not on yours.

Friday, November 1, 2013

And so #Inktober draws to a close


That was fun. And work. And fun.

I did a single ink-on-paper drawing every day for the month of Ink-- I mean, October-- for Inktober.

I had about an hour each day in which to do my drawing, which means on a few occasions I posted something with which I wasn't completely happy. But hey, that's part of the point-- to create something without (much) fear, and just put it out there. In my case, by taking a photo using the Camera Plus app and posted it to Twitter and Facebook. Some examples below.

The entire month's can be seen here:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How I know this isn't about freedom of speech

So, you want me to explain how I can tell that your Facebook page entitled "Should Miri Mogilevsky be murdered?" is not "an exercise in Free Speech"?

Okay, I can do that.

1. First of all, Facebook is a privately owned space on the internet, a web site. It's not a public space, like a city park or sidewalk, where First Amendment protection of freedom of speech applies. Arguably there is no public space on the internet-- only a very large collection of private spaces-- but freedom of speech would also protect your right to express controversial beliefs on a web site, if that web site is your own. Is Facebook your web site? No.

It's more like the internet equivalent of a meeting hall. The fact that you're invited to camp out in the meeting hall and talk about interesting things with your friends, family, and total strangers does not mean you can do or say anything you want there-- the owners still control the property since they, you know, own it, and can shut you down at any time, for any reason. They get to decide what kind of conversations you're allowed to have, what kind of things you're allowed to do in there. And they're pretty lax about such things on purpose so that lots of different kinds of people feel welcome. That doesn't mean they must put up with anything.  Right? Okay.

2. Secondly, it's the responsibility of the organizers of any social gathering to put rules in place, if necessary-- and when everybody is invited, it's certainly necessary-- which make it possible for people to meet and exchange ideas in an environment where they feel safe to do so. Right? Not only can you not yell "Fire" in a crowded theater; you can't yell anything in most theaters, crowded or not, because it interrupts the show and makes it hard for people to participate in the thing they're there to participate in. As do, amazingly, web pages asking whether a specific individual should be murdered.  So not only does Facebook have the perfect right to shut down such a page; as a site explicitly dedicated to social interaction it has a moral responsibility to do so.

3. Exercises in free speech are protests in speech form which entail speech a person has the right to make, but which is being threatened by an outside party, usually but not always the government. Generally, this speech entails sentiments which are critical of that outside party which said outside party does not want to be heard. This is why the first kind of free speech typically acknowledged to be protected by the First Amendment is speech critical of the government, political speech. However after that, the most obvious kind of speech that needs to be protected is speech critical of entities the government might want to squelch speech to protect, such as religious groups. As Voltaire reportedly said, "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."

Are you allowed, legally and socially, to criticize Miri Mogilevsky? Yep.

You may criticize her in a box. You may criticize her with a fox. You may criticize her with a dog. You may even criticize her on her blog, assuming you aren't an asshole about it.

Death threats, on the other hand? Even death threats disingenuously phrased as a question?

You may not do those on her blog.
You may not do so on Facebook...anymore, though a lot of us were confronted with this before that came true:
Possibly because of how Facebook outsources its moderation duties?
And it has fuck all to do with free speech.

I know this because this is a threat against Miri, and not a response to any threats by her.

I know this because if you actually, for some weird reason, want to make a point that asking whether someone should be murdered is free speech, choosing a specific, real, private individual about whom to make that point on someone else's private web site makes no sense at all, and simply obscures that goal beyond all recognition.

I know this because neither the form of speech nor the target of it make any sense at all, in terms of being an "exercise in free speech."  All they accomplish is showing that the person who made this page (who is currently unknown, and who has made attempts via random IPs to avoid being known) doesn't understand freedom of speech, or how it works, in the slightest.

In addition to being an asshole and a coward.

I really resent it when people hide behind ideals which I hold sacred and are genuinely threatened, in order to try and justify making others fear for their very safety. People like Miri, who, herself, actually does stand up for the freedom to espouse controversial ideas.

But not, unsurprisingly, for the freedom to threaten people's lives on Facebook. Her own or otherwise.

Because that ain't free speech.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


According to Mr. Jake, Inktober is:
Thirty-one days, thirty-one ink drawings.
 Are you ready?!
INKtober rules:
 1) Make a drawing in ink (you can do a pencil under-drawing if you want).
 2) Post it on tumblr (or Instagram, twitter, facebook, flickr, Pinterest or just pin it on your wall.)
 3) Hashtag it with #inktober
 4) Repeat (you can do it daily, like me, or go the half-marathon route and post every other day, or just do the 5K and post once a week. What ever you decide, just be consistent with it. INKtober is about growing and improving and forming positive habits, so the more you’re consistent the better.)
 That’s it!
Here are my drawings for the first five days, which I've been posting, and will continue to post, on my Facebook account and Twitter feed:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fact and fiction on Minneha's "Islam" bulletin board

Today's editorial cartoon in the Wichita Eagle, drawn
by cartoonist Richard Crowson
Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School is very close to where I live in Wichita, Kansas. The name "Core Knowledge" comes from the belief that there are culturally common things that students should learn about in order to be successful in life, which sort of makes you wonder why every school isn't a Core Knowledge school.

Apparently some of what Minneha considers Core Knowledge is an understanding of the world's major religions. I agree with that wholeheartedly, as did the Supreme Court in the famous 1963 case Abington School District v. Schempp, when Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court:
[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
The purpose of the dual religion clauses in the First Amendment is to prevent government institutions from advancing or inhibiting religion. The government, from the president down to the public school teacher, may not push religion on the public, and it may not prevent members of the public, private citizens, from practicing their own religions as they so choose, provided that such practice does not violate the law in any other regard.

Let's keep this in mind while considering the flap at Minneha, where a bulletin board displaying the Five Pillars of Islam (five central acts of devotion for Muslim practitioners) was on display as part of the school's effort to educate students on world religion...until a photo of the bulletin board was posted on Facebook apparently without context and with some very questionable comments. The bulletin board was then taken down until such time as the unit on Islam will be taught during the school year, when it will be....hung back up in the same place, with the same content?  A different place, and/or with different content? It's hard to say at this point. I'm not sure Minneha knows. What's cool about this case, though, is the fact that it presents an opportunity for Minneha to pass on some of that core knowledge to an audience that goes far beyond its student body-- to their parents, to Wichita, to the members of our state governing bodies, and to the internet itself-- about church/state separation and what it means. So in that spirit, let's review some of the things that have been said about this event and sort them into two categories-- fact and fiction-- for the sake of education.

1. From the Take America Back Facebook page:
Verdict: Fiction
Seriously, guys, you couldn't even spell the city's name correctly? Wichita. Wichita. 

Yes, this is in fact an image of the bulletin board at Minneha. However, that's where the truthy part ends. Minneha did not "ban all forms of Christian prayer." No public school in America has "banned all forms of Christian prayer," or all forms of any kind of prayer. It is perfectly legal to pray to Jesus, Allah, or Thor in public school if you want to. What isn't legal is doing so on behalf of the school, using the school's authority.

Abington v. Schempp was about this latter sort of prayer, more specifically about a ceremony Ellory Schempp's school district held every morning in which students were required to hear or read from passages from the Bible. This effectively combined the school's authority to educate with authority to indoctrinate, the latter purpose more appropriately belonging to Sunday than public school. Students may pray-- or read the Bible-- in public school of their own volition, if their doing so is not disruptive. The school may not do so for them, or encourage/compel them to do so.

2. From State Representative Dennis Hedke:
If you’re going to talk about Islam and make it sound like it’s another one of those religions that needs to be understood and contemplated by mankind, there’s a serious misunderstanding.
Verdict: Fiction.

Islam is a) a religion which b) needs to be understood and contemplated by mankind. At least, as much as any religion whose adherents make up about 20% of the world's population does. Contrary to what Hedke seems to assume, it is in fact beneficial to understand belief systems which you yourself to not share. Firstly because they affect the behavior of others in the same way that your own beliefs affect your behavior, and secondly because every belief you currently have, you once did not have. If you had begun life with a strict policy against understanding belief systems you don't currently share, you would literally believe nothing.

Most importantly, of course, the SCOTUS verdict I quoted above highlighted the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. Comparative religion is teaching about religions-- saying "Here is what these people believe. Here are their rituals. Here are their traditions. Here's the origin of their faith, according to them, and according to other people. This is a religion. This is a belief system which has causal effects in peoples' lives, and therefore in our world. You need to know about it." All of this is just as true of Islam as it is about Christianity, and yet I don't think you'd hear Rep. Hedke complain that Christianity is not "one of those religions that needs to be understand and contemplated by mankind."  I highly doubt that if the bulletin board had been about the Sermon on the Mount, it would have ever been posted on Take Back America's Facebook page. The first big hurdle of comparative religion is, I suppose, acknowledging that there are people who believe in other religions as fervently as you might believe in yours. It's definitely an important thing for mankind to understand.

3. From a hand-wringing blog post on PJ Media:
The questions presents themselves: First, why would a school in the middle of the Bible Belt present something like this? Second, will they give the same pride of place to Christianity? Judaism? Mormonism? Zoroastrianism? Third, where is the ACLU? They have been quick to sue over so-called establishment clause issues in school in the past, so why are they not hammering Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School for this outrageous promotion of religion?
Verdict: Ignorant.

Sorry; I can't declare these questions factual or fictional because they are, after all, questions. However they're certainly leading questions, and they lead to an ignorance of how church and state separation works, and how the ACLU works. See, the ACLU is more than aware of Schempp, and they support it:
The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.
Presumably the "same pride of place"-- that is, bulletin board space-- will be given to Christianity when that religion is discussed in Minneha's instruction on religion. Judaism as well. Mormonism and Zoroastrianism probably not, because they are not considered among the big heavies of world religion. Zoroastrianism, no offense to Zoroastrians, barely exists at all at this point. It would be impossible to teach about all of the world's religions, so Minneha teaches about the most significant ones worldwide. Seems reasonable to me.

Why would a school in the middle of the Bible Belt present something like this? Gosh, can't you at least be pleasantly surprised that we did something right?

4. From the Wichita Eagle's editorial board:
No, the misunderstanding is all Hedke’s. As President Bush said so often and so well after Sept. 11, Islam as practiced by the vast majority of people is a peaceful religion that respects others.
Verdict: Fiction.

Wait, wait, hear me out on this. I'm not saying that it's fictional that Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a "peaceful religion that respects others." I'm saying that this is not a defense of teaching about Islam in public schools, because it's irrelevant. Public schools do not restrict themselves to teaching about egalitarian, ecumenical, "respectful" (whatever that means) ideologies. They teach about relevant ideologies, which depending on the course in question could include forms of racism, sexism, fascism, nationalism, etc.

If you want to teach about an ideology, you must make students understand why people believe (or believed) in it. That's what it means to understand an ideology. It doesn't mean that you must present the ideology as true or good, so it doesn't matter whether the ideology is true or good-- just that you represent it accurately and fairly. And do the same for Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, which I assume are the other religions to be taught.

There are two very good letters to the editor on the Wichita Eagle's editorial page today on the matter of Minneha's bulletin board, and I'll conclude by quoting from them:
How does suppressing the study and understanding of the religion of about one-fourth of the world’s population, the majority of whom are not radicals, help our case? Aren’t we trying to expose our youths to all the knowledge they might need to critically consider the many facets of a problem? 
 William C. Skaer
 I’m sorry the school had to take down its display depicting the five pillars of Islam. I hope it will be able to replace it soon. The school staff and students know better than many adults that learning about different religions is a great way to move toward a peaceful world. They know that pretending religion doesn’t exist is a prescription for ignorance and bigotry later in life. They know that learning about a religion is not the same thing as believing. And the teachers know that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of public schools to provide education about religion at the same time that it rightly prohibits proselytizing. 
 Noelle Barrick

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Barney Frank, atheism, and representation

So Barney Frank came out last night-- again. This time as a "pot-smoking atheist" on Real Time With Bill
Maher, when Maher gave himself that label and Frank responded by jokingly asking Maher which one he meant:
Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…
Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?
Maher was saying this in the context of asking whether Frank felt "liberated" now that he's no longer in Congress, which is apparently the only time a congressperson can be liberated-- when he/she is an ex-congressperson. Presidents can be liberated when they're ex-presidents. They can start claiming to honestly believe and support things they should have openly believed and supported while in office, but it was too "dangerous" to do so (read: it might damage their chances of re-election). Gay equality. Ending the drug war. Secularism. Etc. It can leave a person wondering if "no taxation without representation" still applies when elected officials will only represent you when they're no longer in office, that is, when it no longer matters.

Okay, yes, there has been only openly atheist sitting Congressperson-- Pete Stark, who was actually the second longest-serving congressman until he lost his seat last year to another Democrat. But given that people without religion are believed to comprise roughly 10-20% of the American population, depending on how you define things, shouldn't we be at least a little better represented than that? Among 535 voting members...maybe?

Whenever discussion of representation of demographics in government comes up, there is an inevitable argument which comes from people who-- quite frankly-- seem to oppose a particular candidate and everything he/she stands for, regardless of whatever demographic is applicable, which goes something like this: elected officials should represent the people, which means they should represent everyone. We shouldn't want officials who represent only those like themselves, which means that demographic shouldn't matter which means...basically, shut up and be happy with more old white heterosexual Christian men. (I'd say "wealthy," but that's so beyond being a given it's already given before it was given.)

When you hear people talk about the "other" or "othering," and they're not talking about Lost, this is what they're referring to-- the unspoken assumption that there is a default, and the default represents everyone, whereas everyone else, that is everyone who is not the default, represents only their specific factions-- whatever those may be.  Women can only represent women, black people can only represent black people, gays can only represent gays, secularists can only represent secularists, but straight white old religious guys? They are generic; they are Everyman; they can represent all of us.


In reality, we all have experiences, and those experiences teach us. And those experiences are shaped by our demographics. Our race, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our class. Etc. No matter how empathetic a white man is, unless he's John Howard Griffin, he doesn't know what it's like to be a black man. Griffin did not know what it's like to grow up as a black male. The reason that colorblindness is misguided and actually racist rather than racism-alieving is that it ignores the experience conveyed to a person growing up as a human being in their particular race. Experience gives perspective; colorblindness pretends that it has all of the perspective (or that perspective doesn't matter) without the experience.

Wanting to be represented is wanting people who have shared your experiences, and therefore have the ability to understand your perspective, standing for you. Representation is standing-for. When it comes to government, it is also making-decisions-for.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, the populist trend pretends that we only want people who have had similar experiences to ours (or at least, what we would like to pretend our experiences have been) representing us, and so you get ridiculous feats of pretension like George W. Bush dressing up as a cowboy. We often use the word "pretension" to refer to elitism, but actually it's closer to just pretending, in this case pretending to be just folks. To, of course, white heterosexual Christian middle class folks. They want to be represented. In regard to three out of four of those attributes, they always have been and always will be. It would be nice if they'd notice and pay attention to the fourth, as well as the equal need and desire for representation by the rest of us.

Or at least...stop saying that it doesn't matter.

It matters.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Revenge of the Nerds trope

Pictured: Nerd revenge
First, a disclaimer: I've not seen a single episode of Big Bang Theory.

I did, however, read an article about it entitled Why Geek Girls Are Tired of 'Big Bang' Bullshit, and contains a lot of complaints about sexism on the show. One of them in particular caught my eye:
In the season two episode “The Panty Pinata Polarization,” Howard and Raj use NORAD satellites to locate the contestants of America’s Next Top Model. They stalk these women, show up at their door, and then pretend to be the satellite repair men in order to gain access to the house and gawk at the women wearing bathing suits. That is not funny. That is not clever. That is downright creepy, and even when this is pointed out to the characters, they don’t care. You get the sense that they feel entitled to these women, like it’s their right as men to go try to seduce and ogle them, even if it requires illegally using military spy aircraft.
It stuck out because it reminded me of re-watching Revenge of the Nerds a couple of years ago for Film Sack, and seeing the same sort of thing. In case you haven't seen Revenge of the Nerds lately-- and I would not blame you one bit for that-- there is a scene in which the nerd fraternity decides to literally drill holes in the ceilings of a sorority and drop cameras in, so that they can spy on the sorority girls as they undress. This is not the worst thing they do to this sorority, considering that the movie also has a "panty raid" scene, and the covert cameras apparently captured image of one of the sorority members-- Betty-- topless which nerd hero Lewis copies and glues into the bottom of pie tins sold at a carnival. That is, of course, before he dresses up in a costume that Betty's boyfriend Stan had been wearing in order to seduce her in a funhouse at that same carnival, eventually revealing that he's not her boyfriend at all. So yep, rape by false identity-- but Betty's character is presented as being fine with it, because I guess having the movie end with Lewis being arrested and charged with sexual assault would've taken things out of the comedy category.

But in both cases what we have is nerds spying on attractive women using their nerdy skills of surveillance, with the explicit or implicit understanding that this is okay because those women wouldn't date the nerds anyway, perhaps might even be mean to them, and therefore the nerds are justified in taking what they weren't given. Getting revenge.

Yes, the Big Bang Theory scene doesn't sound nearly as bad as the surveillance of the sorority in Revenge of the Nerds, but really it sounds like the only reason it wasn't is because Revenge of the Nerds was an R-rated movie in 1984, when showing bare breasts was not just acceptable but practically obligatory. I don't exactly get the feeling that it's because Hollywood looks back at that movie with any particular feeling of revulsion or regret. As, you know, I did when watching it two years ago.

So I'm wondering-- is this actually a trope? One alive and well, long after it had no business being so-- nerds feeling wronged by the injustice of existing in a world where attractive women won't sleep with them, and therefore being justified in doing whatever it takes to get a good look (or more) at those women, without their consent if necessary?

Gosh, I hope not. And if so, let it die already.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Canon fodder

The cocktail waitresses of Star Trek (2009)
So I was watching the 2009 film Star Trek, which annoyingly has no subtitle. No Nemesis, no Insurrection, no Into Darkness, no Into the Woods, nothing. So it will forever be known, to me at least, as "the 2009 Star Trek," which is unfortunate given that it's a decent film and immediately precedes Into Darkness, currently in theaters, which gets its own subtitle. Maybe they realized they messed up with the previous one? I don't know.

Anyway, I watched it and couldn't help but notice all of the female Star Fleet extras running around (literally, in more than one case because their ship was in danger of being destroyed) in those mini dresses and go go boots that the women wore in the original series, their hair more often than not up in what I guess was supposed to be a futuristic version of the beehive-like updos worn in TOS, a sort of vertical topknot, an oblong bun which sticks straight out of the tops of their heads. The choice to outfit them this way was presumably made in deference to the original garb that female officers wore in TOS, and to the reasoning it embodied, which-- one can only guess-- was so that nobody would accidentally take them seriously.

I watched this and thought about a recent blog post by Felicia Day on Into Darkness, discussing how it has no strong female characters. How even in instances where the leaders of the free galaxy, the decision-makers, were getting together and figuring out what to do, there were few women, especially appropriately aged women (you know, prime minister age or thereabouts) amongst them, and how weird and disappointing that was. Though Day doesn't specifically mention the gratuitous underwear scene with Alice Eve for which screenwriter Damon Lindelof confusingly apologized (confusing because you don't exactly trip and accidentally insert scenes like that into a script), she says
I kept waiting for her turn, waiting for her to not be the victim, to be a bit cleverer, to add to the equation in a “yeah you go girl” way but no, she was there to be sufficiently sexy that Kirk would acknowledge her existence, to be pretty, to serve the plot. I loved her bob. That’s it. What if she had been a less attractive woman, older, overweight? A tomboy? Wouldn’t have that been a tad more interesting choice? Or at least give her a moment where she’s not a princess waiting to be saved. From a director who is so amazing, who created wonderful female characters in Alias and Felicity, I was super bummed by this. A woman character CAN exist without having to be sexually desired by the guy. Oh, and she doesn’t have to be a lesbian either, OMG WHAT A SURPRISING IDEA!
Responses have ranged from the reasonable to the ridiculous on both the original Tumblr post and on her Facebook wall when she linked to it. It's important to point out here that by "ridiculous," I'm not referring to any comment which simply differed either with facts or the intent of Day's post, or both. I'm referring to the kind of comment typical of any feminist critique of popular culture, which is some combination of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "You're just jealous," or worse. Sometimes much, much worse.

There were plenty of people who agreed with Day that a) there are no strong female characters in Into Darkness (which, full disclosure, I haven't seen....yet. That's why I was re-watching the 2009 movie), and b) given the futuristic setting of the Star Trek universe where the Federation has been depicted as an egalitarian organization, it doesn't make sense to portray events as though there are no women in charge of anything who possess formidable skills and commit acts of bravery and cunning with more or less the frequency that men do, and even with c) Day's larger point that "it's time to invent some new cliches" where women are concerned. There are people who agreed with all of these things, and yet ultimately disagreed with Day's claim that this spoke poorly of the movie as a whole (which, incidentally, she says she enjoyed very much).

A sampling of replies 
Why do they disagree? Because of canon.

Because Kirk is notoriously a womanizer, so it makes sense to depict him womanizing.
Because in the original series of Star Trek (referred to as TOS, for...the original series), the stories told revolved mainly around men doing things, men like Kirk and Spock and Scotty and Bones and Sulu.

Even though the 2009 movie and this current one are reboots and have changed a lot of things, they cannot and should not change the fact that the story is not about women and their interests, so if you're interested in that kind of story, find a different science fiction franchise already. One that didn't originate in 1966. These are the stories we've committed to, and by golly we'll be damned if they're going to be changed! At least to be less overtly sexist, anyway-- other things such as chronology or location of events and the circumstances of different characters dying or not dying, as the case may be, you can change and we'll grudgingly accept it. But don't take away our sexist stories, because we'll have nothing left!  If you want strong women, go watch Xena: Warrior Princess or something, and leave TOS alone!

...they said. Basically.

In response to this position-- that the absence of strong female characters in Into Darkness (or, for that matter, the 2009 Star Trek) is a feature; not a bug, because it's simply the movie being true to canon-- I have a few thoughts.

The first is that I can see the point of this objection. In spite of being reboots, these two movies resurrect very old stories from TOS and splice them together with a modernized perspective. If too many changes were made, the stories would not even be recognizable and they would simply be about a group of people with familiar names in a familiar-but-new setting doing completely unfamiliar things, in which case it might as well not even be the Star Trek universe.

However, this brings up all kinds of questions about what aspects of canon must be adhered to and why, in order to preserve the familiar setting and cast but also tell a story which isn't identical to one the audience has already been told (in which case the movies would not be reboots but remakes, which is a different beast altogether). Of all of the things preserved for the new, 2009/2013 versions of stories originally told decades earlier, must one of them be the male-centric nature of those stories? And regardless of your answer to the previous question, would it really be worse to modify the story to make it less sexist, or to invent a new one?

This is especially relevant to ask when we're talking about the Star Trek universe, given that this universe depicts a futuristic existence where human civilization has presumably progressed to the point that bigotry is no longer much of a thing, right? It's inevitable that people who are trying to tell stories about future human civilizations which have progressed far beyond their own, will still project on those people their own prejudices and general small mindedness without even realizing it-- so even as they're giving people of the future things like teleportation and food synthesization, they're still going to make those people reflect whatever backwards inclinations are common in the time of the writers-- or rather, in the writers themselves. It's pretty much ubiquitous in any movie or TV show which takes place hundreds of years from when it's written. We just can't help but think about how people might think in the future-- especially a utopian rather than dystopian image of the future-- by relying on how people think now. Then, when that actual year finally comes along, people can watch your movie or TV show (assuming they remember it exists) again and laugh their asses off.

But in this case it's a little different. In this case, we're talking about putting our own current spin on the stories that were previously told about those futuristic civilizations and yet not questioning, in fact transferring verbatim, much of the prejudices of that bygone era. Prejudices which don't even apply to our own societies in some parts of the world (where female leaders are common), let alone a society in the year 2233. Isn't it weird that we'd take an old depiction of a futuristic society and decide to re-depict it, and in doing so deliberately not make corrections which would render the depiction more realistically futuristic?  It's as if someone had actually invented a teleporter which is both different from, and functions better than, the ones depicted in old episodes and movies based on TOS, but we went right on making new movies which showed people moving from one place to another by standing on a little circle and becoming fuzzy until they vanish. Because after all, that's canon. You can't change the story.

If that's really the case, though...that story is boring and you shouldn't expect people who are represented poorly (or not at all) in it to be interested. They may be, but you shouldn't count on it.

There, I said it.

Yeah, yeah, I know-- there's no shortage of people who simply don't care if women and minorities are interested in the movies and TV they love. You could keep right on making movies and TV shows based on comics, science fiction, or fantasy which cater to the interests of white male geeks only, and plenty of white male geeks would be just fine with that. Some of these people even react to complaints like Day's by acting as if she wants to take over Star Trek-- or Star Wars, or Doctor Who, or movies based on Marvel comics, or any other franchise which keeps churning out geek fodder-- and make it all about women. Put women in charge of everything! No, that is not what she's saying. That's not what I'm saying, and it's not what any feminist critique of these things that I've ever seen has been saying.

I'm saying that if you're going to tell girls and women that it's cool to be a nerd, you should also give them better reasons to be.

That is not at all a knock at Wil Wheaton, who is speaking in the video at that link-- he's actively doing this, in addition to giving that excellent speech. Felicia Day is actively doing it, by creating the Geek & Sundry channel on Youtube. She's also asking where all of the women are, and she's not the only one doing that. According to a recent article in the LA Times, appropriately titled Where have all the women gone in movies?,
Despite the success of recent female-driven movies such as "Bridesmaids" and the "Hunger Games" and "Twilight" series, female representation in popular movies is at its lowest level in five years, according to a study being released Monday by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 
Among the 100 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office in 2012, the study reported, 28.4% of speaking characters were female. That's a drop from 32.8% three years ago, and a number that has stayed relatively stagnant despite increased research attention to the topic and several high-profile box-office successes starring women. 
"There is notable consistency in the number of females on-screen from year to year," said USC researcher Marc Choueiti. "The slate of films developed and produced each year is almost formulaic — in the aggregate, female representation hardly changed at all." 
When they are on-screen, 31.6% of women are shown wearing sexually revealing clothing, the highest percentage in the five years the USC researchers have been studying the issue.
For teen girls, the number who are provocatively dressed is even higher: 56.6% of teen girl characters in 2012 movies wore sexy clothes, an increase of 20% since 2009. 
The USC researchers said these trends persist because those working in Hollywood believe attracting a male audience is the key ingredient to box office success.
Well gosh, I guess I have some questions for "those working in Hollywood" then. Such as:
  • Do you think women also go to movies?
  • Do you think men will stop going to movies if they feature strong female characters, and the number of women who see them will be unaffected? In other words, do you think both groups only want to see men doing things, and women serving as eye candy or simply absent? 
  • Do you think that movie-goers are actually more sexist now than they used to be, and are continuing in that trend? Or is there just more money to be made in assuming they are? And in the end, what's the difference?
Returning to science fiction/comic/fantasy movies specifically, there are so many movies in those genres which are either out currently, or coming up in the next couple of years, that geeks are downright giddy. The Wolverine. Iron Man 3. Man of Steel. Pacific Rim. Ender's Game. Thor: The Dark World. The Avengers 2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Ninja Turtles. More Transformers, more Expendables, more X-Men, and so on. It's a great time to be a geek-- if you're a straight white male geek, or don't mind taking part in stories told mainly for and about same. And actually there are a lot of people in that latter category-- there have to be, don't they? Because the alternative is to just not watch the movies.

But geek movies have a woman and minority problem, and they have it because canon is considered so important.

Because geeks are so often gratified when something is just the same as it was when originally depicted in the  comic book/regular book it came from, and prone to throwing tantrums (AKA "nerd rage") when it's different. And the origins of the stories which formed these canons are old-- sometimes very old. Given how quickly social contexts change, "very old" in this case could be any time before 1980. If the canon of your franchise of choice formed prior to that point-- and most of the popular ones do, from Superman to Star Wars-- it's probably going to be sexist. At that point you have to stop denying it, and start figuring out what to do about it. Is preserving the canon more important than telling stories which include women and minorities as something other than bit parts and scenery? As actors-- and by that I mean, people who act, rather than being acted upon?

And by "canon," I know I'm not referring to every last detail of a franchise story. An aspect of the story is considered canonical or noncanonical based on how important it's considered, how story-altering it would be to change. Yes, I know. I also know perceptions of what should be considered canonical tend to differ. Is Johnny Storm's race canonical, or not? How about Nick Fury's? Is Spider-Man's web-shooting ability naturally derived or an invention? These are questions a lot of comic book geeks actually have opinions about, and those opinions are based loosely on two different factors: 1) whether there's precedent you can point to in the comics, and 2) how cool the particular geek you're talking to thinks the different options are. Degree of badassery has a remarkable effect on people's concerns about canon-- see, for example, every superhero costume which made a dramatic change from brightly-colored spandex to metallic and/or black armor upon arriving in a movie post....oh, probably 1989's Batman. Some costumes just can't be translated directly to real-world garb without looking ridiculous rather than menacing to our eyes. That fact might not change, but it should be clear by this point that what impresses us does, has, and will.

You could change the characters, along with the costumes.
And if that's too disturbing to consider, why not come up with and/or use some new stories?

I actually don't really care which route movie makers choose-- either one could be amazing. And both have actually been done and continue to be done, over and over....just not in women's favor. The movies I listed as coming out in the next couple of years are noticeably lacking in strong female characters. Just men saving the world and the girl, over and over, for the most part.

It doesn't have to be that way. So why not change?
Give us women...and make them badass. I hear geeks are into that.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Niall Ferguson
So, just as I'm finishing reading comedian Jen Kirkman's book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, historian Niall Ferguson goes and claims that people who don't have children don't care about society or the future. Or at least, he claims that about economist John Maynard Keynes, while suggesting that Keynes was gay:
Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes' famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of "poetry" rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. 
It gets worse. 
Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it's only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an "effete" member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson's world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.
That was on May 2nd. For two days the blogosphere discussed whether Ferguson is a homophobe, and on May 4th he apologized-- kind of. He went to great lengths to disavow any possible homophobia, including suggesting that it would be impossible for him to be homophobic since he'd asked Andrew Sullivan to be godfather to one of his sons. The reader is treated to a lecture on how absurd and idiotic it would be to think that Ferguson of all people might harbor any bigotry toward homosexuals, as well as the fact that Keynes himself was not immune to such, being somewhat xenophobic toward Poles and Americans. Which is relevant because...I've no clue. The apology ends with a flourish of snark so abrupt it threatens rhetorical whiplash:
Shock, horror: Even the mighty Keynes occasionally said stupid things. Most professors do. And—let's face it—so do most students. 
What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.
Be warned! All who took offense to Ferguson's remarks and fail to accept his apology given here are forthwith declared members of the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere and enemies of academic freedom! Criticism is censorship! Free speech! The ability to speak one's mind openly is in peril when people object too stridently to illogical and offensive smearing of widely respected economists! Geez, you'd think he was a comedian who made a rape joke.

And one common theme that exists in both Ferguson's "apology" and the reactions of people who took exception to his remarks is this: the emphasis on homophobia. Being anti-gay is wrong. Nobody should suggest that gay people are selfish, impetuous, nihilistic, or otherwise deficient in character in any way because they are gay, say the detractors. I didn't mean to suggest that, don't believe it, and don't attack me too much for accidentally claiming it or else you're the speech police, says Ferguson.

Okay...but how about what he suggested about the childless?

Ferguson remarked on the added stupidity to his comments arising from the fact that Keynes' wife did actually get pregnant but suffered a miscarriage, implying that it's underhanded to criticize that particular couple for not having children because at least they apparently tried, and it would amount to pouring salt on the wounds of someone who has lost the baby they hoped for to claim that no such hope ever existed. Which, indeed, it would be...although considering that Keynes died in 1946 and his wife Lydia Lopokova in 1981, it's safe to say that those wounds have long since scabbed over. More fundamental to the point, however, is the fact that Ferguson's characterization of Keynes as selfish and shortsighted due to not being a parent is equally a catastrophic failure of logic and fairness whether he and his wife had attempted to procreate or not. This is because not only does not having children count as character flaw; neither does not wanting them.

Childless by choice, otherwise known as childfree, is not a bad thing to be. Really.

Jen Kirkman
I frequently make the same joke as Jen Kirkman makes in her book's title-- how could I be a parent, when I can barely take care of myself? But let's be's a joke. Mostly. In addition to being a quasi-memoir and thoroughly enjoyable read, Kirkman's book tears to shreds a lot of popular misconceptions of what it's like to not want children, as well as countering arguments-- yes, arguments-- people make for why you should have children, even though you don't want to. Especially if you're, you know, female. People without children don't understand how precious life is. They won't have anyone to take care of them when they're old and infirm. They have no legacy to succeed them. They are doing a disservice to their parents and partners (who, presumably, not only want children/grandchildren themselves, but require them). They are not truly fulfilled and actualized women (not applicable to men, seemingly-- they don't tend to get this one, even from Niall Ferguson).

Along with revealing the extent and nature of homophobia in the United States, the culture war over gay marriage has revealed a lot of other kinds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness that tend to overlap with it. They're like a Darwinian tree of bigotry, the root of which is basic sexism. From that root sprout a seemingly infinite array of stringent and ingrained beliefs about what men and women should do, say, and in general be, and one of the things they should be is parents. With a person of the opposite sex. Naturally. That is, by a combination of the man's sperm and the woman's egg achieved via sexual intercouse within the context of marriage, probably in the missionary position with the lights off. Not artificially, whether by adoption or in vitro, not outside of marriage, not with a partner who has the same type of genitals you do, and absolutely, positively, not not at all!

It's sort of like atheism, in that a religious person would prefer that you be of the exact same religion that they are (after all, their belief is the Truth with a capital T)...but they can deal if you're, say, of another denomination. Methodists can get along with Presbyterians when they need to get things done. And hey, when it comes right down to it, if you at least agree on a lot of traditions and have a similar basic history underlying your respective belief systems...okay, Protestants can get along with Catholics. And then, well, you know, in the spirit of ecumenicalism, they can also manage to get along with Jews and maybe even Muslims. And then, hey, I guess if we're going to try and all be on the same page, in the end what matters is that we all worship God, right? In our own ways, but everyone has a different path up the mountain and what matters is that you get there.

But don't even believe in God?
You don't even want children? 

The brain seems to short-circuit here, as in a conversation Kirkman recounts having had at a wedding with someone she'd just met:
"I know you're not even married yet," Lucy lectured, "but at your age, you have to think about making a family while you're planning the wedding." Five minutes ago I was too young to know that I was going to change my mind and suddenly I'm too old to waste any time after my wedding to plan on making a family? Which age bracket am I in? Young and stupid or old and barren? And "making a family" is another expression that grosses me out. I pictured Matt standing over me in a lab coat with a turkey baster. 
Lucy took a big sip of her red win, wiped her lip, and leaned into me. She may have been a little drunk or a little dehydrated or a little both, because she had that dry "wine lip" that looks like someone poured purple paint into the cracks of a sidewalk. She leaned in close and whispered, "What would you do if you accidentally got pregnant?" I didn't even understand the question. "Oh, I would never cheat on Matt," I answered. "No, Jen, I mean what if you got pregnant, by accident, with Matt's baby?" 
"Are you asking me, someone you barely know, at our friends' wedding, if I would have an abortion?" 
"Well," she said, "it's something you have to think about if you don't want kids. I mean, I personally think that abortion is something for teenagers who couldn't possibly raise a child. But ever since I decided that I wanted to try to become a mother and I see how difficult it can be to get pregnant, I realize that it's a gift to be pregnant and if a married couple who are both employed accidentally get pregnant, I don't see how you can give that up."  
A total stranger tried to small-talk me about abortion. I have never had an abortion. I never want to have an abortion. I also don't want to have a baby. 
And trust me...we've thought about it. We've heard all about how Jesus wants to be our lord and savior how great parenting can be, how fulfilling, how important, how necessary. And by "necessary," I mean we've heard about how it's necessary for everyone who is capable of procreating, especially the rational and intelligent ones, to partner up and make some babies already, for the sake of the human race!

But really...we don't. We have our reasons. And it's okay.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The stupidest cartoon

When I saw this cartoon, my head about exploded:

I'll let Hemant Mehta explain what's so wrong with it:
The idea, of course, is that the media is celebrating Collins for telling the world he’s gay, while they were mostly annoyed by Tim Tebow for telling the world he’s Christian. 
If that sentence seems weird to you, that’s because the cartoon makes no sense. 
Collins did something no male in the NBA (or several other popular leagues) had done: He came out as gay while still playing professionally. 
Believe it or not, there’s no shortage of Christians in any sporting league. Need evidence? Just listen to someone on the winning team during a post-game interview. 
When Tebow told the world he was Christian — more Christian than other Christians, really, with his eye black messages and on-field prayers — it was annoying. It doesn’t take “courage” to proudly proclaim, “I’m in the majority!”
All I can do is create my own versions which attempt to be closer to reality. Like

Or even just

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why do we laugh at sexist jokes?

Post about stereotyping, cliche
thinking gets stereotyped,
cliched image
Let's say you view love as a battlefield. Okay, more like a football field. Dating, sex, relationships, marriage-- they're all a series of skirmishes against the other team, aka the opposite sex. You compete with others on your own team as well, fellow Men players and Women players, but when push comes to shove it's really your team against their team. When you get together with fellow teammates, you make fun of the other team with abandon. Sometimes you even do it in their presence. It's expected; it's normal-- why wouldn't both sides of a rivalry do that? And hey, it's all in good fun. More or less. Because after all, you're going to be playing on this field for your entire life. You will never stop playing, and neither will they. As a straight person, that's what you're expected to do-- it's all you can do. Right?

That's what you'd call an adversarial model of sex and relationships-- a zero-sum game, in which men and women are two sides in a conflict, each trying to get what they want from the other. Generally speaking, according to this model what men are trying to get is sex with the hottest women possible (and eventually marriage with the most virginal) while women are trying to get married to the wealthiest, most high-status men, and the behavior of both sexes can be read as performed in pursuit of this goal. Both the "is" and the "ought" here are taken as a given, and since the goals of men and women generally differ, they are eternally at odds with each other and can be expected to engage in various forms of manipulation in order to get what they want. Sure, at times this will result in love-- but never complete trust, because the goals remain different even though they overlap. You're in competition amongst (straight) people of your own sex because you all want the same thing, and also with people of the opposite sex because they also all want the same thing, and they want it from you. Hopefully.

If you don't view relationships this way yourself, you probably know people who do. When there aren't members of the opposite sex around they'll talk about how crazy women are, or how stupid men are, secure in the belief that you not only won't mind but will actually appreciate these comments, because after all you're on the same team. You're just one of the guys/gals, and we've got to stick together. Bros before hos, and whatever the female equivalent is. I'm pretty sure there isn't one, or at least there isn't an actual slogan that women employ for this mentality. We are not, however, exempt from that kind of thing.

I was thinking about this while reading Miri at Brute Reason's excellent post discussing research on sexist humor. Her post covers studies which found a correlation between appreciation of sexist jokes and permissive attitudes toward sexual assault and rape, and it's a must-read. The most interesting portion of it to me, however, was this:
Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.
It actually hadn't occurred to me that if you're one of these people-- male or female-- who views sex and love in adversarial terms, you're not only likely to likely to appreciate sexist jokes, but likely to appreciate (or at least not be offended by) sexist jokes against your own gender. That is, if you go through life assuming that people of the opposite sex are in some sense the enemy, trying to manipulate members of your sex into getting what they want, you're not likely to be surprised when they make jokes at your gender's expense. In fact you'd expect this, because it's not like you can have a battle with only one side fighting, can you? It's all in good fun to trash people of the opposite sex because a) it's so true (that's why we're laughing), and b) hey, they do it too.

Now, the studies Miri discusses weren't conducted to examine adversarial thinking in relationship to sexist jokes specifically, so I'm extrapolating from this. But I would hazard to guess that if the jokes told had been sexist toward men rather than toward women, the men wouldn't have been terribly bothered and might well have laughed, again in correlation with the extent to which they think in adversarial terms. And this makes quite a bit of sense when you consider that a lot of the jokes which poke fun at people based on their sex do so in both directions. It's staggering to think about how many comedians have built their entire careers trading on such stereotypes, male and female, and they're usually at least implying some not-so-flattering things about their own gender while appearing to attack the other. Often unintentionally, but still they are.

So if this is all true, it gives you something to think about when, for example, discussing why a woman would laugh at Seth McFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song at the Oscars. That song celebrated adversarial thinking, without a doubt. And when a public figure makes a joke, song, commercial, speech....really any sort of performance that transmits a message which turns out to offend people, the first thing those who enjoyed/agree with it do is find examples of people the performance supposedly mocked, hold them up, and say "Look at this-- we found a woman/person of color/homosexual/citizen of that country/member of that religion who thinks it's funny/true! Therefore it's not offensive!" Every. Single. Time.

In the case of sexism, maybe this is the explanation for why. Not because the joke isn't sexist, but because they share a mindset with the person making the joke which permits them to enjoy it along with them, even though it's sexist in their direction. Because hey-- it's so true. And they do it too.


In related news, it's a travesty that this Kickstarter will almost certainly not be funded. If you're interested in the general topic of offensive jokes, consider supporting it even if you don't like this post from me. Even if you think I'm absolutely wrong-- especially if you think so. Because if so, that documentary might bolster your case. :-)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

America: lousiest host ever

Okay, here's the deal. How it should be.

If you're in the United States for reasons beyond your control-- that is, you didn't decide to come here on your own, pay for it on your own, and physically get yourself here on your own-- you're entitled to the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. Additionally, if you're in custody of the U.S. in some way or another, the same goes. If it's a bunch of Americans who are patrolling outside the cell where you're spending day after day, year after year, even decade after decade, you deserve the kind of rights that every native-born American, living out his or her entire life on American soil, enjoys or should enjoy (and can sue if he/she doesn't receive). Like, you know, the right to due process.

All right? Because that's how a civilized country behaves.

A civilized country does not act as if people from other places are inhuman because they weren't lucky enough to burst into existence in a hospital room on American soil or haven't yet gotten the chance to complete the lengthy, tortuous, and utterly capricious experience of becoming a naturalized citizen.

A civilized country does not capture people and lock them up for years without charge or trial, regardless of where it found them or under what circumstances. It finds the time to actually figure out what they supposedly did to merit being locked away from anyone they know or even anyone who speaks their language, officially tells them what it is, and determines whether they're guilty of it. Then releases or punishes them accordingly.

A civilized country remembers that the tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free are going to want to breathe its free air so long as such a thing exists. It does not respond by vacuuming all of it out and providing oxygen tanks to a selected few favored people, so that the undesirables can properly suffocate. It does not whine "They hate us for our freedoms" and proceed to eliminate those freedoms so that there's nothing left to hate.

And a civilized country would never be so cruel, so inhuman, so devoid of any shred of empathy, that it would fight to deny the ability of people who were brought here without any intention of their own, as children, to remain in that country instead of sending them packing to go live in a location and culture that's alien to anything they've ever known.

You got that, Kris Kobach?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A bit of mulling over

Following up on Sunday's post, I can't help but keep returning mentally to Dr. Darrel Ray's talk at Skeptics of Oz last month, which you can see and hear (both are important in this case) here.

In a nutshell, the thesis of Ray's talk (and, I assume, of his book Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, although I haven't read it) is that the essence of religion-- in particular American Christianity-- is sexual control via shaming. Shame and guilt, actually-- Ray doesn't differentiate between the two, although I find the distinction between them very important. He says that religion causes people to be filled with sexual shame to the extent that even as they grow up and live out their lives as mature, sexually active adults, they are compelled to lie about that sexuality to themselves, their friends and family, and especially their children. They lie about the fact that they masturbate. They lie about the fact that they have sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, or after. They lie about sexual attraction being a part of them that exists quite independently of the desire to create and raise children, and as such isn't something which sprang into existence on their wedding day and exists only for the person they married.

In support of this position, Ray points to higher than average levels of divorce, pornography consumption, and teenage pregnancy in the more fundamentalist parts of the U.S. Sexual shame is the source of all this lying, he asserts, because we can't escape from being sexual beings, and yet religious people-- again, mainly American Christians-- yearn to escape this aspect of our nature so badly that they are driven to simply deny it. This shame manifests itself even people who have deconverted, as a vestigial part of our moral thinking as adults, which can be observed when the more secular amongst us nevertheless engage in activities such as slut-shaming against others as well as when they turn it inward and deny their own impulses. In order to properly reject this, Ray says, we must be "secular sexuals," embracing our own sexuality as well as that of other people-- to admit publicly that we masturbate and have since we were kids, to refrain from slut-shaming and condemn those who do, and recognize that other people have their own preferences and these are their own business. In this way, we can subvert the popular assumption that sex sullies a person-- particularly if she is female-- and encourage education while discouraging ignorance and bigotry.

Okay, that wasn't exactly a nutshell. Sorry.

Now, this was both a safe and audacious talk for Ray to give at a meeting like Skeptics of Oz. Audacious because those are some very strong claims-- the original claim was that religion is a "sexually transmitted disease," that religion is all about sexual control, religion is fundamentally about making people feel ashamed of their sexuality and deny it their entire lives even while dating, marrying, producing children, and in general living a typical adult sexual life. And religious people hearing this would think "No, that doesn't remotely describe my experience." Which, in America, for most religious people, is probably true. It's possible that religion in America is as much about sexual control as veterinary medicine is about euthanizing peoples' pets-- a phenomenon which is a near-monopoly, but far from an all-consuming purpose. Which leads to why it was a safe talk for Ray to give at a conference for skeptics-- because when it comes to conferences, "skeptic" generally entails, if not translates to, "atheist." (See this excellent talk by Matt Dillahunty at this year's American Atheists conference for what the distinction is, and why it's important.)

He wasn't likely to hear a lot of argument from the audience about religion's role in sexual shaming and deceit-- and in fact, there was none. And that is because, I feel comfortable in saying, we-- not just secular, but anyone other than socially conservative Americans-- are sick to death of social conservatism. And social conservatism, especially that relating to anything sexual, invariably comes with an appeal to religious sensibilities. Because this is America, Christian religious sensibilities. Abortion? God's against it. Birth control covered by health insurance? Same. Pornography? Same. Gay rights? Same (but please don't look at how many politicians and clergy have been caught having gay affairs). Sex outside of marriage? Same (but please don't examine how many of us have stuck to that). Adultery? Same (but please don't look at our divorce rates). We're used to this, if anything but happy about it. It's called the religious right, and it shows no sign of going away. So of course a group of secularists-- sworn enemies of the religious right-- are not going to speak up about a talk saying that religion (American Christianity) is, fundamentally, about sexual control.

I just think it's overstating things. Just a tad.

To be continued.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The miseducation of Katelyn Campbell

Katelyn Campbell
Recently in West Virginia, a teenager objected to a particularly obviously problematic form of abstinence-only education. Wait, let me rephrase that-- "Lying, slut-shaming diatribe" would be a better name for it. And the teenager in question, Katelyn Campbell, knew that's what it was. She even used the word "slut-shaming," which is just excellent. It's like a teenager being taught to "consider the controversy" in her biology class when learning about evolution immediately saying "Intelligent Design, right? That's really what you're getting at. Right?" Only in this case, it's as if Intelligent Design was the only thing being taught. And evolution was presented as a pack of lies. And students who believe in it were chastised, shamed, and told that their mothers probably hate them.

Yes, one of the things Pam Stenzel, Christian sex educator, said during her presentation was "If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you." Other common statements in her "educational" talks include gems such as:
  • “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.” 
  • “Ladies, you contract Chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.” 
  • ”That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she was not taking that drug.”
  • ”Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be.”
And my personal favorite,
  • "if you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous - and monogamy does not mean one at a time, that means one partner who has only been with you - if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay. No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid."
Campbell apparently knew about Stenzel and chose not to attend the assembly that she (Stenzel) would be speaking for at George Washington High School, where Campbell is a senior and student body vice president. Instead, she started speaking out about the issue and filed a complaint with the ACLU. This attracted the attention of the school's principal, George Aulenbacher, who called Campbell into his office and proceeded to lecture and, according to Campbell, threaten her
Aulenbacher called Campbell to the principal's office after she contacted media outlets about the assembly and said, "I am disappointed in you" and "How could you go to the press without telling me?" according to the complaint. 
He then allegedly threatened to call Wellesley College, where Campbell has been accepted, and tell them about her actions. "How would you feel if I called your college and told them what bad character you have and what a backstabber you are?" he said, according to the complaint.
In case you're wondering, it's all cool with Welleseley.

And it's probably all cool with Katelyn Campbell as well. In addition to Wellesley issuing a public statement saying it is "delighted to welcome" her as a member of the class of 2017, people are clamoring to congratulate Campbell for her bravery and maturity in this matter. And she deserves every bit of it-- she's one of those rare high school students to whom it would even occur to consider that something like the tirade by Pam Stenzel at her school might not just be hard to sit through, not just unpleasant, not just wrong, but possibly illegal...and then actually do something about it. Become a student activist.

Jessica Ahlquist did the same thing, and endured endless harassment and threats for it. It doesn't look Campbell is going to have the same experience, though there has been some backlash in the form of a Facebook group originating in support of her principal. Aulenbacher's threat itself proved to hold no water, and from what I've read if he had been more familiar with Wellesley he should have known this himself, but the fact is...he didn't. He thought he could intimidate a student into shutting up about her objections to an assembly, and that it would be a good idea to do so. If this is all true, he appears to be one of those public school administrators who clearly views his position as one of domination rather than education, and therefore should not be in that role. But it remains to be seen what happens there.

In the meantime, there's so much discussion about Pam Stenzel and her message. In this instance, her visit to George Washington High School was funded by a local Christian organization called Believe in West Virginia, and probably cost between $3,500-5,000. She has a DVD called "Sex Still Has a Price Tag" which she sells to public schools for $30 a pop. She claims to speak to over 500,000 young people a year, at both public and private schools. She attended Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, is supposedly a product of rape and then adopted (as described in her talks), and previously worked at crisis pregnancy centers (pseudo-clinics which are frequently run by pro-life groups and are known for providing pregnant women with false or misleading medical information to encourage them not to abort). The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States' (SIECUS) says of Stenzel:
Pam Stenzel
Pam Stenzel was one of the first individuals that SIECUS became aware of who made a career of traveling from school to school providing abstinence-only-until-marriage assemblies and presentations. The influx of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding has meant that more schools are able to pay for these kinds of services (or receive them for free as part of a grant to a local community-based organization, crisis pregnancy center, or church), and Stenzel and her peers have been very popular in recent years. There is much to suggest that there is now a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage speakers that help promote each other’s work and materials.
This comes from a lengthy and comprehensive review of her "Sex Still Has a Price Tag" video, which includes several fact-checks of statements she makes concerning birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, and notes that
Pam Stenzel does not attempt to hide the fact that her performance is designed to scare young people. She begins by telling her teen audience, “If you forget everything else I told you today, and you can only remember one thing, this is what I want you to hear. If you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous—and monogamy does not mean one at a time—that means one partner who has only been with you— if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay.” The rest of the presentation hammers home this concept by telling young people exactly what form this payment may take from unintended pregnancy, to STDs, to emotional heartbreak, to death. 
Ms. Stenzel’s tone throughout her presentation can best be described as punitive, as though she knows that some of the teens in this world (and some members of her audience) have had or will have sex outside of her parameters, and she wants them to know that they will be punished. Moreover, by suggesting that these teens deserve punishment, Ms. Stenzel presents a world view in which virginity is the only measure of a person’s character and moral judgment, and sets up a dichotomy between those who are “good” and those who are “bad.”
The review is worth a full read, though if you're anything like me, it will make you angry.

I can't help but mentally compare it to the DARE program, in which I recall being told outright that consumption of any illegal drug will cause you to become immediately addicted to it, which means that all people who use illicit drugs recreationally are addicts. That's an easily disconfirmable claim, even without consuming any such drug yourself-- all one need do is observe some users of illicit drugs who are not, in fact, addicts. However, Stenzel's "If you have more than one sexual partner, you will pay" lie is better and worse at the same time, because it's so much more easily disconfirmable. This statement can be shown as nonsense by simply observing that practically all Americans have sex before marriage, and multiple sexual partners in their lifetimes, and yet they don't appear to be "paying." At least, not in any way that is causally distinct from the way in which those precious few one-partner-forever people (or, of course, the lifelong celibate) are not "paying." As I've written before, waiting to have sex until you're married doesn't protect you from anything. And having a single sexual partner who has also had no other sex partner but yourself may protect you from STDs, but a) this describes practically no one, and b) Stenzel denies this, but condoms do work. Quite well, actually. These two facts together ruin her entire thesis. Further, the most common STD which most people get actually isn't that bad. Most people who contract it won't even know they have it. As SIECUS says,
In truth, the majority of HPV infections cause neither genital warts nor cervical cancer but, instead, resolve themselves spontaneously without medical intervention. Even HPV infections that cause warts can resolve without treatment. And, if young women do contract one of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it typically takes 10–15 years once cervical cells begin to change before invasive cervical cancer develops.
So interestingly, in the process of de-stigmatizing premarital sex in response to people like Stenzel, we end up de-stigmatizing STDs as well. It's not that STDs aren't bad, of course, but they're not as bad as people like Stenzel like to portray, and worst of all of course is the fact that she continually emphasizes (erroneously) how bad STDs are while also denigrating effective means of protecting against them. This is moralizing standpoint, not a fact-based standpoint. Clearly, facts are not the important thing here. You don't tell people how to prevent house fires by telling them never to buy a house, or denying the efficacy of fire extinguishers.

In a few different places while reading about this story, I've seen people say that if you object to what Stenzel does, you must be fine with telling kids to have sex. You're endorsing an "anything goes" mentality. I'm not doing anything of the sort-- I know what I want teenagers to know about sex, and it isn't "Go forth and screw without regard for the consequences." At bare minimum, I want them to know the truth...yet I'm starting to wonder if that's asking too much.

Not only is Stenzel hiding facts from the kids she supposedly teaches; she's indoctrinating them with falsehoods. Harmful, counter-productive falsehoods. We really need to stop this practice of just inventing catastrophes and pretending that they're inevitable for kids who do whatever we don't want kids to do. Kids will see through this, because a) they're not stupid, and b) they grow up. And when they do, they will come to question everything they've been taught because this particular thing has been shown to be so absurdly false. And while I'm all in favor of thinking critically and questioning authority, it would be nice for public school students not to be taught complete nonsense which forces them to eventually learn the value of such things for themselves, gradually and painfully. That isn't education. Let's not stand for it.