“What do you have to be depressed about?”

If you have experienced depression while living what appears to be a fairly nice life, you’ve probably had someone ask you, “What do you have to be depressed about?”

Sometimes people who ask this question are genuinely curious because they think that depression is necessarily “about” something and they just don’t understand what, in your case, it could be “about.” Sometimes, though, people who perceive your life to be better than theirs feel resentful and jealous and, upon hearing that you are suffering from depression, demand to know what could possibly be wrong with your life that could cause a mental illness.

The origins of depression are complicated and still not very well-understood. One model that’s gained ground lately is called the diathesis-stress model. The term “diathesis” refers to a vulnerability, which could be genetic, biological, environmental, or psychological. “Stress” refers to a catalyzing event, a life stressor that can increase one’s chances of developing a disorder (the diathesis-stress model has been used to describe more than just depression).

One specific type of diathesis that has been researched concerns a specific gene, known as the serotonin transporter gene or 5-HTTLPR. Some studies suggest that people with a particular variant of the gene are more likely to develop depression, but only if they have a significant life stressor. If not, then there’s no difference between people with the different variations of the gene.

The results are mixed so far, but this is just one example of a way in which having “something to be depressed about” can indeed provoke depression. But it’s not the whole story. People without significant life stressors can still get depression, and people who do have life stressors are still much more likely to get depression if they have that genetic predisposition–the diathesis.

Diathesis can come in all sorts of forms. Having learned poor cognitive coping skills as a child could be a diathesis. Having abnormalities in the brain’s neurochemistry could also be a diathesis, although the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression as we’re used to seeing it is more or less bullshit.

Some types of diathesis might be considered to count as “something to be depressed about,” such as living in poverty, having a chronic health condition, or having an unstable or abusive family life. Others, such as having genetic predispositions or brain abnormalities, would not count as such for most people. Asking someone what they have to be depressed about is therefore not very useful.

But moving away from the science of depression’s origins, I’ll state the obvious: no matter how well you know someone, you never know everything that’s going on in their life. Not even if it’s your kid. The person may have a significant life stressor that’s triggering their depression that they just haven’t told you about, and they probably won’t if you sarcastically ask them what they have to be depressed about. If you’re genuinely curious, a better way to phrase that question is, “I’m sorry to hear you have depression. Is there anything that’s triggering it for you?”

The important thing with that is to never ask questions like you already know the answers. The question, “What do you have to be depressed about?” comes along with the implied answer, “Nothing.” Even if you don’t think it does. That’s how many people are going to hear it. So don’t get too caught up on the literal meaning of the words you are saying, and think about how they’re going to be interpreted.

The hypocrisy of the “What do you have to be depressed about?” question becomes blatant when you consider our typical response to those who do, by all accounts, have something to be depressed “about.” What tends to happen is that when we feel that depression is to be expected in a given situation, we also frame it as “okay.” Normal. Natural. It’ll pass on its own and we shouldn’t interfere.

This might explain the controversy over the decision to remove the bereavement exception from the newest edition of the DSM. Previously, people who were grieving had a two-month “window” during which they could not be diagnosed with depression, which often looks very similar to bereavement. With the publication of the DSM-5, this exception was removed. Lots of people were Very Concerned that this means that we’re “medicalizing” a “normal” process such as grieving.

I know I probably over-rely on comparisons to physical health, but that’s because they can be very illuminating. If you’re subjected to a some loud noise and you get a headache, or you work out strenuously and get extremely sore muscles, few people would suggest that you shouldn’t take medication to ease those pains just because they happened “naturally” (whatever that means). Being extremely sad, even “depressed,” as a response to a loved one dying is definitely “natural,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t interfere with your functioning as a person, and that you don’t deserve help dealing with it.

I’m not necessarily saying that high levels of grief should be diagnosed as depression, though. I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of expecting people to produce compelling “reasons” for being depressed, but then refusing to consider people who do have compelling reasons to be depressed, even if they show all the symptoms.

My final gripe with the “What do you have to be depressed about?” question is that it’s often a way of trying to rank human suffering. What do you have to be depressed about? Some people are abused by their parents. What do you have to be depressed about? Some people are starving. What do you have to be depressed about? Some people have cancer.

Well, if you, personally, were abused by your parents, are starving, or have cancer, I wouldn’t fault you for feeling that the concerns of people with depression aren’t as serious as yours. That’s your right. But there are no measurements with which we can assess how bad someone has it. There is no Standard Life-Shittiness Unit. We need to stop looking for one, and treat every individual’s pain as legitimate.

Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Header for Playboy's fake party guide.

If you were online at all last week, you probably came across a Playboy article called “Top Ten Party Commandments.” The article was in Playboy’s usual style, but rather than emphasizing your typical dudebro disregard for women’s feelings, opinions, and preferences, it’s all about how you can’t truly have a good time without consent and it discusses the cool initiatives different campuses around the country are doing to promote consent.

So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter.

I really like hacktivism like this, but it does have some negative externalities. I’ll talk about some of the pros and then some of the cons.

First of all, it gets attention. Someone who might not click on a link to an article called “Why Consent is Important” might click on a link to an article called “Playboy’s Top Ten Party Commandments.” That person would then be exposed to information and opinions they might have never considered before.

Second, a hoax like this answers the question every activist is tired of hearing: “Yeah, well, if the way things are right now is so bad, what’s your idea, huh?” Although I reject the idea that in order for criticism to be legitimate, one must have a ready-made solution at their disposal, the fake party guide does a great job of giving an example of the type of content a consent-positive magazine might publish. It shows that, in a world free of rape culture, lingerie brands might replace phrases like “Sure Thing” with “Ask First,” and college party guides might rank campuses based on which are the best at promoting safe and healthy sex, not which have the drunkest women.

Third, these pranks provoke a strong positive reaction that sends a powerful message to the companies they mimic. That message is, you don’t have to promote rape culture to sell products. We’re often told that this is “just what sells.” Maybe it does, but consent can sell, too. After the Victoria’s Secret prank, social media filled up with people praising Victoria’s Secret and announcing that they plan to go out and buy the new (fake) products. Likewise, before people figured out it was fake, they congratulated Playboy on taking this new direction.

Part of the fake playboy party guide.A smart business will gauge the public responses to these hoaxes and act accordingly. Victoria’s Secret apparently said that they would “look into” creating a consent-positive lingerie line, although I haven’t heard anything else about that since December. Playboy, on the other hand, publicly stated that they had nothing to do with this hoax, and asked that it be taken down. Bad move.

The drawback of these pranks, though, is that many people will inevitably not hear the part about how it’s a prank; they’ll only hear the part about how X Company That Wasn’t That Good About This Stuff totally switched tacks and created some cool new product that doesn’t suck. I was still bursting people’s bubbles about the Victoria’s Secret months after it happened. Corrections aren’t as sticky as the original news story they’re correcting.

Furthermore, plenty of research confirms that it is really difficult to correct misinformation once it has been spread. From a guide in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective andcan even backfire (PDF).

And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.

What this means is that, even if a media outlet prints a correction (which some had to do after misreporting the Playbox hoax as genuine) and even if people actually see it (which they’re probably not very likely to, since it won’t spread virally like the original news did), the correction is not very likely to “stick.” And, even more worryingly, reporting the Playbox hoax accurately the first time might still lead people to misremember it later as being not a hoax.

But so what if people keep thinking that Victoria’s Secret and Playboy really created these products? Well, it’s always unpleasant when someone gets credit that they don’t deserve. But also, it skews people’s perceptions of how far we’ve come and what is left to be done. Major corporations like these still don’t really take public stands for consent; rather, they create products that negate its importance or actively promote rapey stuff. If people develop the impression that this is changing when it really isn’t, they might be more skeptical of efforts to make it change.

Although it bothers me that these pranks likely end up spreading misinformation, I still think that the pros outweigh the cons. But you may disagree.

Capital-W Writers and lowercase-w writers

A conversation with a friend has me thinking about how I still, despite everything, don’t consider myself a capital-W Writer, just a lowercase-W writer.

I wonder what it would take.

I wasn’t a Writer when I wrote poems and short stories just for fun.

I wasn’t a Writer when they got published in my high school literary magazine.

I wasn’t a Writer when I became that magazine’s editor.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started writing for a small local newspaper at age 17.

I wasn’t a Writer when I got some pieces published in some small national magazines at age 18.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started a blog.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started studying journalism, and was expected to go out into the world and report like a professional.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started getting introduced to people as one.

I wasn’t a Writer when I wrote a weekly column for my campus newspaper.

I wasn’t a Writer when people started telling me that reading my writing had made all the difference.

I wasn’t a Writer when I got published on websites much better-known than mine.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started getting paid just to blog.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started speaking at conferences because of that blog.

I wasn’t a Writer even when I put it on my business card to hand out at those conferences.

I wasn’t a Writer when people started telling me that I should write a book.

I wasn’t a Writer when I knew that writing is the only thing that has been with me since early childhood, that will be with me forever, that keeps me going when nothing else feels good anymore.

I wonder sometimes what it’ll take. It seems so easy to answer that question now: well, it would take getting published in a major online outlet like Slate or Jezebel. It would take writing a book and self-publishing it. Or it would take writing a book and legit-publishing it. Or it would take getting published in a major print publication. Or it would take getting invited onto a show. Or it would take writing a bestseller. Or it would take making enough money through writing to quit my real job. Or…

I don’t even want all that stuff, because I probably couldn’t handle it. But I do wonder when I get to be a Writer and not just a writer.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Mental Illness As A Metaphor

And speaking of the dilution of language, I’m going to talk a little about how the language of mental illness gets co-opted regularly.

Sometimes this is done completely innocently, as metaphor. “The weather’s really bipolar today.” “I’m kinda OCD about this, sorry.” “I’m so depressed about the Blackhawks losing!”

Sometimes it’s a little less innocent, as “humor” that implicitly degrades its target: “She’s, like, totally fucking schizo.” “Clinically Depressed Rob Pattinson Cavorts With Models in New Dior Ad.” (Jezebel has historically been pretty bad about using mental illness as a punchline.)

My usual objection to using mental illness terms in this way is that mentally ill people (who comprise a fourth of American adults) are likely to find them marginalizing and hurtful. It makes us feel like the potentially-fatal conditions we struggle with are just a joke to you. It’s not a nice feeling, and if you are a person who generally cares about your friends’ feelings, you should probably be aware of this.

But the dilution of mental illness terms might have another, more insidious effect, and that is changing our mental schemas of what mental illness looks like such that it’s less and less serious, and treating it accordingly.

As an example, I was recently posting on Facebook about the infuriating phenomenon in which someone discloses a phobia or trigger that they have to warn their friends, and then their friends proceed to try to deliberately trigger them. I literally watched it happen, and then I watched the friend post a new status about how people do this, and someone tried to do it again.

So my friends and I were discussing this and one of them mentioned that a possible factor (aside from the obvious douchebaggery) is the fact that many people now use “phobia” very colloquially, as in, “thing that makes me have a sort of uncomfortable but totally harmless reaction that would probably be amusing for you to see,” as when my little brother wants me to taste something totally gross (but safe and edible) or when my mom is like “ewwww look at all this dust that’s built up on your windowsill!”

I think my friend may be right. These words are used so casually that our conception of their meaning gradually shifts without our even noticing it. It’s like a boy-who-cried-wolf type of situation in that regard. If nine different friends joke to you about how they’re “sooooo OCD” because they like all their books organized just so on their shelf (a situation familiar to just about every bibliophile, honestly), then the tenth friend who comes to you and tells you that they have OCD is probably going to evoke that mental image, rather than one of someone who actually can’t stop obsessing over particular little things and carrying out rituals that interfere with that person’s normal functioning, perhaps to the point of triggering comorbid disorders like depression. This may be a person who washes their hands until they are raw and hurting, someone who has to flick the light switch on and off seven times every time they leave a room, or someone who has recurring, uncontrollable thoughts about hurting someone they love even though they have no actual desire to do that.

Well, that sounds a little different than insisting that your books be categorized by subject and then alphabetized by author, no?

Likewise, if your friends are constantly telling you they’re “depressed” because their team lost or because they got a bad grade, only to return to their normal, cheerful selves within a few hours, the next person who tells you that they are “depressed” might elicit a reaction of, “Come on, get over it! You’ll feel better if you go out with us.”

And so the meanings of words change.

But just because the people around you use mental illness terms in that diluted way doesn’t mean you should accept it. If you want to be an ally to those who struggle with mental illness, you should treat disclosures of mental illness seriously every time unless you’re absolutely certain that that’s not what the person is telling you. Feel free to ask for clarification.

I already shared this story as a comment on another post, but I’ll share it again because it’s applicable here. I once ran into an acquaintance and we chatted for a bit. I asked him what he’d been up to, and he said, “Just, you know, getting sober. I’m an alcoholic.” And I said, “Congratulations, good for you!” And he responded, “Oh, I’m not actually an alcoholic, I just meant that I’ve been drinking less. Haha, I forgot that you’re a psych major.”

The latter comment annoyed me because of its implication that I took his seeming disclosure of alcoholism seriously because I majored in psychology. That’s not why. I took it seriously because it sounded serious, because I want to support people who struggle with mental illnesses, and because I know what a big step it would’ve been for me to tell someone I didn’t know that well that I had started treatment for depression, back when I had it.

But other than my brief chagrin, there weren’t really any drawbacks or negative consequences for me in this situation. I faced no repercussions for taking him seriously. I undoubtedly came out of the situation looking like a decent person who cares about people, and he probably felt a little silly for flinging the term “alcoholic” around, but also reassured that if he ever did get diagnosed with a mental illness, I would take him seriously.

Although it may feel that way sometimes, you do not have a limited number of Real Mental Illness Points that you need to save up for responding to people who have a Real Mental Illness, and that you shouldn’t waste on those who are just using those terms metaphorically. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you that they have a phobia and you decide to refrain from trying to trigger that phobia is…exactly nothing. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you they’ve been feeling depressed lately and you say, “I’m so sorry to hear that, is there anything I can do to help?” is that they say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not like, depression or anything. I’ll feel better soon.”

That’s it!

And your taking them at their word sends a message to them that you believe that these words should be reserved for describing the illnesses they indicate, rather than being used as convenient metaphors. You’re helping to set a norm about how these words should be used.

Meanwhile, if you’re someone who uses mental illness terms to describe states of mind that you do not feel are mental illnesses, I’d encourage you to take advantage of the richness of the English language (or whichever language you speak, which I’m sure is also rich) and not do that. (Russian, for example, has some beautiful words for sadness. There’s the general sadness, or grust'; there’s a stronger version, toska; there’s a type of sadness that’s accompanied by an unwillingness or inability to do anything to improve one’s state of mind, unyniye; there’s a type of sadness that isn’t really directed at anything in particular and lies somewhere between grust’ and toska in severity, pechyal’; and there’s a type of sadness that includes grief, but also sadness at the loss of a treasured possession or an important opportunity, skor’b. And that’s a few. And don’t get me started on the Portugese word saudade.)

Note that I’m not including here folks who have diagnosed themselves with mental illnesses because they’re unable (or currently unwilling) to seek help from a professional. If you feel that you have the mental illness known as depression, then that word, I believe, is yours to use.

My point is only that sometimes misusing language has actual harms, and while language does evolve and change over time, we need words to describe mental illnesses. We can’t fight something that we can’t name, and we need to be able to fight depression and OCD without people thinking that we’re fighting feeling sorta down when your team loses or wanting to have all your books organized just so.

~~~

Related: Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

Occasional Link Roundup

Hello! It’s been quite a while since I last did one of these, so it’s going to be quite long and include some slightly-older links. Such is life.

Speaking of life, it’s been pretty busy/weird. I moved to New York, started grad school, started my field placement (all social work students do it three days a week), met a bunch of people, did a bunch of things, and discovered the joys of going grocery shopping and carrying bags on the subway and standing with them for half an hour and then hauling them up to my fourth-floor walkup. You know.

At just under three weeks, I’m still a very very new New Yorker, and it shows when I show up late to basically every social gathering because I can’t Brooklyn or because I neglected to check the subway service advisories. Or when I try to pay with my credit card when half the places here only take cash. Or when I don’t realize that I shouldn’t have bought so many groceries at a time because I’d have to carry them on the subway and stand with them for half an hour and then haul them up to my fourth-floor walkup.

But considering what a dramatic change in my life this was (biggest move since I immigrated to the United States 16 years ago, fuck yeah!), I’m sort of dealing? I love it here so much. I love that today I went to a feminist group meeting and tomorrow I’m going to a thing called Nerd Nite which has lectures and live music and booze and on Saturday I’m hanging out with one of my best friends and on Sunday I’m checking out more bookstores and on Monday I’m meeting with the other leaders of another feminist group and on Tuesday I’m going to see this ridiculously cool-looking play about Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue. I could keep going but I don’t want to make you guys too jealous.

And on top of all that, I get to see stuff like this and this and this and this and this, and eat stuff like this.

Life is good. Hard and busy and stressful but so good.

On to the links!

1. Cliff talks about changing her name from a very feminine one to a gender neutral/male-ish one, and discovering how differently she was treated online:

I used to think people called me irresponsible, dirty, immoral, or speculated about me having diseases because I wrote about having multiple partners.

Then I changed my name from Holly to Cliff.

2. Libby Anne discusses atheist men who want to “save” women from religiously-motivated sexism:

Far too many atheists appear to think that so long as they’re not religious, they surely can’t be sexist. This is wrong. Very wrong. Sexism does not cease at the church door. If a male atheist wants to attempt to deconvert women by focusing on the sexism imbedded in many religions, he needs to make sure that he’s not engaging in sexism himself, and he darned well better be ready to address his own sexism if it is pointed out to him.

3. Tauriq explains that asking to be called what you’d prefer to be called is not “censorship” or “political correctness”:

To claim “censorship” over “compassion”, PC over politeness, is to only reinforce that you don’t actually care about language and, therefore, the other person; it’s to continue weaving the cocoon of solipsism that’s being pointed out, preventing you from actually acknowledging someone that’s not you or like you. This doesn’t mean unnecessary censorship or policing of words or phrases doesn’t exist: mockery of religion, politics and ideas – even monarchy – resulting in bans or firing is problematic.

But it’s fallacious, black-and-white thinking to claim that any time, anyone requests you not say or refrain from saying something it’s censorship: This shows you don’t recognise nuance in a complicated world; you fail to acknowledge that different things require different responses even if they appear – at first glance – the same.

4. Lisa Wade examines some gendered American Apparel advertisements side-by-side and uncovers some hilariously sad differences.

5. Tressie writes about Miley Cyrus and the use and abuse of Black women’s bodies by white women (and men):

I am no real threat to white women’s desirability. Thus, white women have no problem cheering their husbands and boyfriends as they touch me on the dance floor. I am never seriously a contender for acceptable partner and mate for the white men who ask if their buddy can put his face in my cleavage. I am the thrill of a roller coaster with safety bars: all adrenaline but never any risk of falling to the ground.

6. Jane Doe, MD on Twitter talks about the shame many women feel about their genitals and how it has harmful consequences for their health.

7. Ian may have left FtB, but he’s still off being awesome elsewhere:

Identifying as “a skeptic” does not somehow mean that all the things you do, all of the heuristics you use when arriving at conclusions, are magically imbued with skepticy power. Your brain is not better because you have chosen to affix a label to yourself. If anything, the use of a label in the place of a behaviour suggests a brain that is less engaged, not more. The moment that you stopped questioning your own assumptions, the second you abandoned the premise that you might be wrong about something, the instant you precluded from yourself the possibility that you are prone to the same errors that everyone else is, that’s when you stopped being “a skeptic”.

You are “a skeptic” right up until the point when you stop acting like one.

(By the way, I wrote something very similar [before Ian wrote this, I might add] that you might also enjoy, in case you haven’t read it yet.)

8. Alex thinks you should stop asking people for “coffee”:

The popularity of “coffee” stems, I think, from that ambiguity. It serves as both euphemism and get-out clause, putting dating or sex on the table with plausible deniability – ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving statements that you “didn’t mean it like that”.

[…]The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person‘s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor a social event, but to something which could usually mean either places on them the burden of interpretation; of negotiating correctly an advance chosen for its disclarity.

9. Mitchell has produced a very useful guide for Freeze Peach Warriors and Brave Heroes who have been blocked on Twitter:

Second, remember that though these violations of our rights are serious, the powers that be have, in reality, only erected a proverbial Maginot line against truth and justice. Blocked on the Internet? Remember that you can still employ an army of sock puppets to do your truthy bidding! Those people in the park don’t want to hear your speech about the merits of Men’s Rights Activism? Follow them when they try to leave! Don’t stop until you’ve made sure they’ve heard everything you have to say! Family down the street doesn’t want to listen to your doorstep speech about Jesus how feminism is keeping us down? Look up all of their online accounts and make sure they can’t go two minutes without being bombarded by the free exchange of ideas!

10. The Belle Jar on being a woman writer:

When a man says flattering things about your writing, you will always be left wondering whether it is your work that interests him, or the fact that you are young, conventionally attractive and female. Most frequently it will be the former, but still, you can never shake off the fear that you are not so much talented as you are naïve and pretty. You often feel as if you are only valuable in so much as men desire to fuck you.

11. Ultra Orthodox Jewish sects in New York City have a scary amount of political influence, as Adam discusses.

12. Franklin tackles the common but ridiculous assertion that feminist men are just fakin’ it to get laid:

I don’t quite get what’s going on in the head of some guy who thinks pretending to be feminist is a ploy to get laid, but I have to assume that a guy who thinks that, probably doesn’t think women are very smart. If someone pretends to think women are people, but doesn’t actually think women are people, I suspect the ploy would be revealed rather quickly. Probably some time between appetizers and the main course, and certainly well before any clothes come off. I really don’t think it’s possible to pretend to be feminist, at least not for any length of time longer than a dinner conversation.

13. Paul Fidalgo has some of the most lyrical writing ever. Read this piece about sleep.

14. Ginny wrote a great post about anger: how it can be both useful and not useful for social change, and how, ultimately, expressing anger isn’t always about social change:

But all of that is about anger as a tactic, anger as a tool for change, and that’s only part of the story. The other piece of it is anger as simple self-expression: oppressed people have many, many reasons to be angry, and telling them to curb their anger and express themselves in a way that’s polite and acceptable to those who are profiting from the system that oppresses them — well, many words have been written on how wrong that is, and I agree with them. Anger is only sometimes, and only partly, about creating social change; it’s also about letting the damage be real, and be heard. It’s not about me at all; it’s about letting someone who’s been hurt just fucking react honestly to that hurt.

15. Aoife explains why you should stop accusing every homophobic person of being a closeted queer person:

But when you say that the loudest homophobes are closeted LGBT folks, you erase the fact that the vast, vast majority of homophobia doesn’t come from closeted people. It comes from straight people. Casual, everyday homophobia overwhelmingly comes from straight people (and yes, by the way, I know that all of you aren’t like that). The vast majority of people who vote against marriage equality are straight. The vast majority of the people who draft gender recognition legislation that enshrines gatekeeping, divorce, diagnoses and compulsory surgery are cis. The people who think that knowing we even exist should be kept from kids, because we’re too ‘confusing’? Mostly straight and cis. The people who treat us ever-so-slightly differently, who tokenise us, who judge us by how closely we conform to stereotypes? Mostly straight and cis. And, yeah, most of the people who brainwash, reject and demonise us are straight and cis too.

. This post by Melissa McEwan wins every award ever.

I am advised, by people who imagine that rape prevention is the responsibility of potential victims and survivors, that I must be careful what I wear, how I wear it, how I carry yourself, where I walk, when I walk there, with whom I walk, whom I trust, what I do, where I do it, with whom I do it, what I drink, how much I drink, whether I make eye contact, if I’m alone, if I’m with a stranger, if I’m in a group, if I’m in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if I’m carrying something, how I carry it, what kind of shoes I’m wearing in case I have to run, what kind of purse I carry, what jewelry I wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people I sleep with, what kind of people I sleep with, who my friends are, to whom I give my number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment or condo or house where I can see who’s at the door before they can see me, to check before I open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch my back always be aware of my surroundings and never let my guard down for a moment lest I be sexually assaulted and if I am and didn’t follow all the rules it’s my fault, which I already know firsthand from having been raped and seeing about 1 in 6 of my female friends and about 1 in 10 of my male friends going through it and getting victim-blamed, at least once and frequently more.

I am persistently terrorized by the ever-present possibility of sexual assault that I am tasked with preventing and the knowledge, the first-hand knowledge branded into my memory like a scar that never quite heals from the sizzle of the iron that left it, that if I am harmed, there will likely be no one there to advocate for justice on my behalf, no matter how loudly I shout nor how deeply I dig my own fingernails into my skin to escape the agony of injustice and neglect for a blissful moment of self-directed pain.

I fear being hurt again, and I fear being a failure at surviving.

This fear is part of the backdrop of my womanhood.

What good things have you read or written lately? Share them here!

All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister […] U is for underage, N is for no consent […] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.

~~~

*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

[guest post] Thoughts on the Assumption of Good Faith

Mitchell of Research to be Done wrote this post after he and I and some other friends had a great discussion about social justice and giving people the benefit of the doubt, and how to adjust our beliefs and expectations when we’re proven wrong time and time again.

It wasn’t so long ago that Lawrence Krauss defended Jeffrey Epstein in the wake of accusations that Epstein had had sex with underage prostitutes, and I thought, “Well, that’s messed up, but maybe I can see how someone might think some of the things he thought, even while being incredibly mistaken.”

It wasn’t so long ago that DJ Grothe accused female bloggers of making women feel unwelcome or unsafe at TAM, and I thought, “Well, that’s shitty, but he probably just doesn’t understand what it looks like from the other side.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Michael Shermer responded to the criticisms of comments he made about skepticism being “a guy thing” with a piece that included the phrases “witch hunt”, “purging”, and “Nazi party”, and I thought, “Okay, that’s pretty over-the-top, but on the balance of things, he still seems like he’s a generally reasonable person most of the time.”

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to have faith in people, to believe that their intentions are generally good, to believe that they want to do right by the rest of us.

And yet…

And yet in the wake of recent events in the skeptic community, I find some difficult but inescapable realities have come crashing down on me.

While it’s possible that Krauss was simply incredibly mistaken about the situation with Jeffrey Epstein, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which such accusations are so easily dismissed is an environment in which it would be easier for someone who frequently engaged in sexual harassment to continue to do so without consequence. While it’s possible that Grothe just didn’t understand where the women who blogged about harassment in the skeptic community were coming from, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which the concerns of women are not taken seriously is an environment in which someone who doesn’t respect the women in their workplace is less likely to be called out on it. While it’s possible that Shermer was just having a really bad day when he compared criticisms of his comments to witch hunting and Nazism, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which criticisms made by women are routinely gaslighted in this way is one in which women would find it more difficult to criticize problems like sexual harassment.

I want to believe the best of those I have looked up to in the skeptical and scientific community. I want to, but I am finding it more and more difficult. In each of the above examples, my initial instinct was to assume good faith, and later events made me feel naïve for doing so. Later events made it obvious that none of these people just needed someone to sit down and civilly explain things to them.

In watching conversations in the skeptic community over the past few years, nearly every time I have seen someone say something that I thought was harmfully wrong, but said to myself, “They probably just don’t get it.”, later events have suggested that much deeper problems “just not getting it” were at work. It feels like whenever my instinct has been to give someone the benefit of the doubt, it’s later come about that their actions have been consistent with those of someone steering the community in a direction that benefited them at the expense of others*.

I don’t know what to do with this realization. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I also don’t want to be naïve. I would rather not go through life assuming that every time anyone says anything that reinforces problematic ideas that person is secretly twirling their misogyny mustache and readjusting their monocle of twisted rationalization. At the same time, I want my perceptions to be accurate, and it seems clear that they haven’t been particularly accurate recently.

I put the question to the audience: at what point is the assumption of good faith not deserved? How do you decide when trust is overly naïve or mistrust is overly cynical?

If we err too far on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, we run the risk of providing leeway and power to people likely to abuse what they’re given, as seems to have been the case in situations like the examples above. I also find that, at least in my case, I am more likely to identify with people whose good faith I assume. That is, if we assume that I’m a thoughtful, well-intentioned person, and that Public Figure X is not, but I think they are, then when I see Public Figure X excoriated for saying shitty things, my reaction is going to be partially, “Jesus, these social justice people might one day get all angry at me for just misunderstanding something, too!”. If, however, I don’t assume that similarity, I am less likely to see the legitimate complaints against Public Figure X’s actions as unfair or ridiculous, because I won’t be able to as easily imagine myself saying those same things while honestly misunderstanding. It it seems to follow from that that if we assume good faith, we might, correspondingly, assume that the shit storms that we see are more unreasonable than they actually are.

On the other hand, if we err too far on the side of assuming the worst, then, well, we are unfairly assuming the worst.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe there is no good answer. Maybe the only actionable solution is to continue calling out bad behavior, and to not apologize for calling it out, and to pay attention when it starts to look like a pattern. I know one thing I have gotten out of recent events is that I’m going to be enormously more wary of the suggestion that people would come around if only we would engage more civilly**. That ship has sailed. Too many important problems, both with people and organizations, have been identified by skeptics who were unwilling to compromise on calling out bad behavior.

But I genuinely am curious: what say you, skeptics? Are there any decent rules of thumb for separating good faith from bad faith? When do you assume honest ignorance and when do you assume willful blindness? Are there any decent rules of thumb for how to engage (or not engage) if the truth is uncertain?

Or, in short: what is there to be learned from all this?

~~~

*I want to be clear at this point: I do not, in any of the above situations, think that any of these people ever consciously thought, “What I really want is a community steeped in harassment and misogyny.”. I simply think that they are capable of rationalizing behavior that has that effect when it benefits them, even when it has a detrimental impact on the community.

**I also can’t help but notice a certain massive irony in all of the calls for civil discussion over the last couple of years in light of the fact that all three of the people I use as examples in this post are operating on a civility level which we might fancifully term “Lawsuit”.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote this post for it a year ago, and I decided to repost it today because I still think people should read it and I doubt I could write another one that’s better.

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here’s how it was.

 

I don’t think I ever wanted to be dead.

I have, however, wanted not to be alive.

Why? Because living sucked, because I hated myself, because everyone else must surely hate me too, because I was a burden, because I was going to be alone forever, because I was like an alien that was accidentally born on the wrong planet, to the wrong species, in the wrong society. Killing myself would be like correcting a cosmic error.

There were many ways I dreamed about it happening. Pills of some sort would’ve been my first choice, although I was absolutely terrified of what would happen to my body if they failed to kill me. (Go figure, I was terrified not of dying, but of failing to die.)

But I wanted to be able to take the pills and lie down somewhere and just curl up until I stopped feeling forever.

Sometimes I also thought about bleeding to death by slashing my wrists or something. But I despise pain above all else, and also, poetic as it would be, the thought of someone I love finding me that way made my guts churn. Also, could I actually do it? Could I actually take a knife and slice open my own skin?

I doubted it.

Jumping off of a building occurred to me a lot, especially at the very beginning of my love affair with suicidal ideation. That was back when I was studying journalism, panicking constantly, and feeling just about ready to do anything to escape. Was the journalism building high enough? If not, what would be?

And then there were the trains. Living in Chicago, you take them a lot. Every time I stood on the El or Metra platform as a train rolled in, I thought about it. Not seriously, as I’d made no plans and written no note, but the thought did occur. The rails screeched, and gust swept into my coat and rattled my bones. How I hated standing on the platform, forced to imagine my own death graphically every time a train rolled in.

Recently, when I was already better, I was waiting on the platform for the Metra. A train was coming. It turned out to be an express train that barreled through the station without stopping. The blur, the clamor, the sudden slap of wind–I was left shaken for several minutes after it passed, imagining what that could’ve done to my body.

Strangely, I never even considered guns, although that is what a character in my abandoned novel chose to use.

I composed many different suicide notes in my mind. Some were lengthy and elaborate, with separate sections for each person I wanted to reckon with before I died. I used to keep secrets and grudges for years, and I wanted everyone to know the truth in the end. (These days, I try to make sure that if I suddenly die today, little will have been left unsaid.)

Other notes were simple. They contained nothing more than a quote or a song lyric. Often they included an apology to my family. I thought about writing it in Russian, not English, as though that would make it any better for them.

I also thought about not leaving a note, but something about that made me very sad. What if they never knew? But might that not be better?

And I could not stop listening to that OK Go song, “Return“:

You were supposed to grow old.

You were supposed to grow old.  

Reckless, unfrightened, and old,

You were supposed to grow old.

I never made a firm plan to kill myself, I never attempted to kill myself, and, obviously, I never did kill myself. The only reason, I think, was because I cared more about my family’s wants and needs than I did about my own. As much as I thought I needed to stop living, they needed me to continue living, and so I did.

Is this “normal”? Do others talk themselves out of suicide this way? I have no idea. This isn’t really something I talk about over beers with friends.

I was lucky, when it comes down to it. Lucky to have a family I love so fiercely that that love overpowered my hatred for life.

Death and I, we have an awkward but strangely comfortable relationship now. If I don’t bother with her, she doesn’t bother with me. I don’t fear death itself very much, although the idea of just not existing terrifies and baffles me, just like the idea of time travel or parallel universes or the butterfly effect.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve traveled to the edge of the known world, teetered on that edge, and then shrugged my shoulders and returned. I can’t really tell you exactly what I saw there, but I will say that there is a thick glass wall now between me and those who haven’t made that journey.

I say to a dear friend as I write this, “I’m thoroughly desensitized to the thought of myself dying.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You should stay here and grow crotchety and gray. Perhaps even collect spiderwebs.”

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

For better or worse, I will live with what I saw at the edge of the known world until I die what I hope will be a natural death.

You Remember The Weirdest Little Things

My routine begins with stripping off whatever uncomfortable, poorly-fitting clothes I was wearing to make myself presentable, and replacing them with athletic shorts and a tank top.

Then plain white socks, which I almost never wear except for this.

I reapply my deodorant.

I make sure my phone is charged and updated with the newest Citizen Radio episode.

I fill up my drawstring bag: wallet, keys, water bottle, phone.

I tie my hair back, ignoring the little curls that fight their way out anyway.

If I’m wearing makeup, I wash it off. Where I’m going, I don’t need it.

The last part: I step into my black gym shoes (I hate white gym shoes) and put on the drawstring bag.

But after that, the routine deviates. Before, I’d glide down the carpeted stairway, two flights, and out the front door, where the street is lined with trees and students carry bags of groceries. On the way there I pass small apartment buildings and large single-family houses with gardens that spill over with flowers. The sun is starting to set, but it’s still hot and muggy. The sprinklers keep the lawns happy.

I turn right and cut through campus, past the huge science building (one of the largest academic buildings on the continent, I heard my freshman year). To the north of it, they’re building a parking garage for the gym, and the dust from the construction site gets in my eyes every time.

But I finally make it to the gym, where it’s cool, where the windows overlook the beach, the grass, and the water. Even during the busiest times, I have my pick of the machines. When I’m doing upper body, I do pecs, triceps, delts, a few other things I don’t know the names of, and sometimes biceps. When I’m doing lower body, I do calves, quads, inner thighs, glutes, and hip flexors. And always, I finish it off with 30 minutes on the elliptical.

And then I’m back into the humid evening, darker now, a little cooler.

Now things are different. Even though there’s an excellent, affordable, 24-hour gym just five minutes away from me (compared to 20 minutes before), it took me a while to start going and it’s still hard to get myself to do it. I don’t want to walk down the stairs of Not My Building and up Not My Street into Not My Gym where I’d have to do Not My Routine because the machines are different and wrong and usually taken up by burly men who terrify me and honestly don’t need those machines as much as I do anyway. (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to feel like I belong in the gym as much as they do.)

But that’s what I have to make myself do if I want to keep working out in Not (Quite Yet) My City.

The hardest part is the part of the routine that has stayed the same. The smallest physical actions become laden with meanings that are impossible to negotiate and reconcile. Putting on deodorant. Putting on socks. Putting my water bottle in my bag. The same deodorant I used before, when I was there, the same socks, the same bag. Not the same water bottle, though, because I have no idea what happened to the one I had during the move.

Obviously, the solution isn’t to stop working out, because I love it and it saves me every time. After that first time I finally went to Not My Gym, my shoulder was so sore I could barely take my shirt off, and it was the best feeling. But if that’s the best feeling, the feeling I get as I put on my black shoes and realize that after this point, it’s not going to be the way I’m used to it being anymore, is the worst.

Why, of all things, has my brain picked the stupid gym thing to torture me with? I don’t know, except maybe that everything else here is just so different that there are no other triggers for that poisonous nostalgia. Nothing about my life here resembles what my life was like three weeks ago, except the parts of it that I spend on the internet. (But even then, it’s hard to forget, with the constant questions from friends about how grad school and life in Not [Quite Yet] My City are.)

Even my domestic routines are different; my bed feels completely different, I dress differently (sensible shoes, naturally), my apartment is very different (insert snark about New York apartments here, but actually, it’s a beautiful place), commuting no longer means walking 10 minutes through campus to class but walking 5 to the subway, waiting at the station, jumping on the train, taking it for 15 minutes or an hour or an hour and a half, getting off, walking somewhere else, etc.

Shopping is different, the city looks and sounds different, the grocery store chains are different, taking out the trash is different, doing the laundry is different. The food I eat is different (just as I looked forward to), the things I do for fun are different. The people I see are different and virtually nothing about them reminds me of my friends back home.

But one thing that has remained completely the same is the process of getting ready to go to the gym, and whenever I have to go through that process, I swear I’m convinced for a moment that I’m going to walk out that door and into my old routines. Where my friends are, where my real gym is, where everything is comfortable and safe.

You remember the weirdest little things. The cluttered desk where the deodorant hid, the mismatched socks pulled out of the drawer, the waning light through the window of the conditioning room, the opening lines of Citizen Radio as you start the first set.

Eventually I will be able to force myself to do this the new way enough times, and with a short enough interval in between, that the new routine will solidify in my head, and Not My Gym will become my gym, as will my building and the street and the city itself. Eventually I will stop feeling like I’m on some weird vacation/summer camp/reality TV show. I love Not (Quite Yet) My City enough to know that that will happen even when it doesn’t feel like it at all.

~~~

P.S. I chose to write about this particular aspect of moving to New York because that’s what I felt like writing about today, but the big picture is rather different. I love it here and I’m glad I moved, and so far it’s actually been even better than I imagined. But sometimes, it’s very hard.

Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

Content note: graphic descriptions of abortions and miscarriages

Being both a feminist and a skeptic means walking the fine line of critiquing the way science and medicine are practiced without denying their importance and validity, of empowering individuals who have faced abuse by these institutions without promoting at-best useless and at-worst dangerous pseudoscience to these individuals instead.

I was reminded of this ever-present tension when I read a book of essays called Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generationedited by Barbara Findlen. One of the essays was titled “Abortion, Vacuum Cleaners and the Power Within,” and the subject was the author’s negative experiences with what she called “clinical” abortions–that is, abortions performed by someone licensed to perform abortions.

The author, Inga Muscio, describes the several clinical abortions she had: they were painful and terrifying:

Have you any idea how it feels to willingly and voluntarily submit to excruciating torture because you dumbly forgot to insert your diaphragm, which gives you ugly yeast infections and hurts you to fuck unless you lie flat on your back? I had to withstand this torture because I was a bad girl. I didn’t do good, I fucked up. So I had the same choice as before, that glowing, outstanding choice we ladies fight tooth and nail for: the choice to get my insides ruthlessly sucked by some inhuman shit pile, invented not by my foremothers, but by someone who would never, ever in a million years have that tube jammed up his dickhole and turned on full blast, slurping everything in its path.

Muscio, who is very clear about her opinions on “Western medicine” (she at one point refers to it as “that smelly dog who farts across the house and we just don’t have the heart to put out of its misery”), eventually gets pregnant again, and this time she tries something else:

I started talking to my girlfriends. Looking to my immediate community for help led me to Judy, the masseuse, who rubbed me in places you aren’t supposed to rub pregnant ladies. She also did some reflexology in the same vein. Panacea told me where to find detailed recipes for herbal abortifacients and emmenagogues. Esther supported me and stayed with me every day. Bridget brought me flowers. Possibly most important was the fact that I possessed not one single filament of self-doubt. With that core of supportive women surrounding me and with my mind made up, I was pretty much invincible.

So, one morning, after a week of nonstop praying, massaging, tea drinking, talking and thinking, I was brushing my teeth at the sink and felt a very peculiar mmmmbloommmp-like feeling. I looked at the bathroom floor, and there, between my feet, was some blood and a little round thing. It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny Super Balls. It was the neatest thing I ever did see. An orb of life and energy, in my hand.

But lest you think Muscio intends this as a solution just for herself, she concludes, disturbingly:

Concentrating on the power within our own circle of women was once a major focus of the women’s health movement. I think we would benefit from once again creating informal health collectives where we discuss things like our bodies and our selves. If we believed in our own power and the power of our immediate communities, then abortion clinics, in their present incarnation, would be completely unnecessary. Let the fundamentalist dickheads burn all those vacuum cleaners to the ground. if alternative organic abortions were explored and taken more seriously, there wouldn’t be much of an abortion debate. Abortion would be a personal, intimate thing among friends.

Can you say Amen.

I finished the essay feeling confused. Although Muscio explained that “clinical” abortions were painful and felt wrong to her, she did not even attempt to explain her fury at abortion providers (whom she seems to think are all men). She did not explain why (or even whether) a painful and scary medical procedure that aborts a fetus is any different from a painful and scary medical procedure that stops a tooth infection or removes a tumor. Would she advocate “alternative organic” methods for those problems, too?

Her graphic imagery of vacuum cleaners, blood, and gore is never explained or justified in any way. She just doesn’t like the idea of abortions, and this, apparently, is reason enough to let abortion clinics go extinct.

Muscio further erases the fact that women, too, can and do perform abortions, and her implication that only women can understand the female reproductive system is extremely cisnormative (and also simply wrong; any doctor who has spent years studying those organs and operating on them and helping to keep them healthy surely knows more about them than I, a cis woman, do).

But I think I’m most disturbed not by Muscio’s ideas, but by the editor’s decision to publish them in this anthology.

How would a young person, perhaps not very knowledgeable about abortions, perhaps who has grown up being told they are awful and immoral, perhaps in need of (or at risk of needing) an abortion themselves, react to reading this piece? What decisions would they make about their health? I’m wondering if the editor thought about this before choosing to publish the essay.

On one hand, I see the value of publishing and reading all kinds of narratives about reproductive health, including this one. In our rush to portray abortion as a standard, no-big-deal sort of medical procedure, advocates for reproductive rights sometimes lose sight of the fact that, like any other medical procedure, abortion can be terrifying and traumatic completely independently of the fact that it’s so stigmatized.

Fear of medical procedures (and fear of pain) is something that people are expected to magically “outgrow” when they stop being children. Some do, but some don’t. Doctors don’t always know how to respond to adult patients with extreme fear, and often respond without empathy or compassion. This is only one of many reasons some people turn to practitioners of alternative medicine for help.

Understanding this is essential if we are to help people find healthcare that works (both by actually getting them physically better and by treating them with dignity and care). But the essay was presented in the book without any sort of commentary. While the book’s editor isn’t necessarily condoning or supporting the ideas in the essay, she is nevertheless promoting them by giving them wider circulation than they would otherwise have.

People may read the essay and become convinced that prayer and herbal tea can actually abort a fetus, and that getting an abortion performed by a medical professional is always a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs. That someone would end up with an unwanted child is probably the best case scenario of taking Muscio’s advice, as alt-med remedies can be actively harmful and dangerous.

(In fact, in the essay, Muscio elaborates on the specific “herbal remedies” she used. One of them was pennyroyal, which was implicated in the death of a woman who used it to try to induce an abortion. She didn’t know that she had an ectopic pregnancy. In general, the history of herbal abortifacients is, as i09 puts it, terrifying.)

Giving people medically accurate information about reproductive health is a crucial part of progressive activism. While one might argue that left-wing distortions of science and medicine are more well-intentioned than their right-wing counterparts, the end result is absolutely identical: people don’t understand how their bodies really work, how medicine works, which medical interventions are supported by the evidence and which are not. People feel ashamed of seeking out medical care that works.

I know that there are compelling reasons to publish this essay as is. I can understand why the author of this book might’ve done it. But I wouldn’t. It seems irresponsible.

~~~

P.S. Many of the other essays in the book were actually pretty cool. Here are my favorite quotes.