Occasional Link Roundup

Guys, living here is like living in a social justice paradise. I saw Julia Serano give a reading last week, and next week I’m going to a poetry slam about social change and then seeing bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry speak and then going to a workshop on gendering racial microaggressions.

And that’s just the stuff I find time for. :P

Also, I had never been in New York during the fall before, and it’s so beautiful it makes me cry. Not even kidding. Check it out.

Since I probably won’t do another one of these updates within the next two weeks: Skepticon is coming up I am so excited ahhh. If you’re going and getting there early enough, check out my workshop on consent at 4 PM on Friday, or just feel free to come say hi to me at some point during the weekend. (Seriously, every time I get back from a conference someone tells me online that they really wanted to talk to me but felt too shy and didn’t. First of all, I would totally do the same thing. But second, I’m super friendly so just come up and ask me to tell you about what I’m reading or writing. Or politely argue with something I wrote. Whatever!)

1. Speaking of conferences, the Skeptech team is running a fundraiser to help organize their second annual conference! I went last spring, spoke on two panels, and had an amazing time and plan on coming back in 2014. The organizers are auctioning off a personal portrait of one lucky winner by SMBC cartoonist Zach Weinersmith. The fundraiser ends at 1:30 Central tomorrow, so go bid if you’d like. Even if you can’t do that, consider spreading the word about the conference and/or attending in April 2014 if you can. It’s a really great con and has a strong commitment to bringing diverse speakers and creating a safe, welcoming space for everyone.

2. If you only read one article on this whole list, you must read this. It’s called “Dating Tips for the Feminist Man,” but it goes so much deeper than that. And while it’s applicable to people of all genders, it addresses the problems that straight, cis feminist men are particularly likely to face:

If you find yourself disregarding something she is saying because she is upset as she is saying it, notice that this is sexism. You may have been raised to believe emotion is not rational and is therefore not legitimate. That is for you to unlearn, not for you to impose on others. Emotion and intuition, when finely honed, serve clear thinking. Don’t retreat into your head or use logic to disconnect from empathy when you find emotions coming your way; clear thinking is informed by ethics and compassion. Build up your capacity to feel and to respond to feelings in a rational, intuitive, self-aware way. You’ll be more human for it, and a better feminist, too.

3. A post about the idea that not saying “no” is equivalent to saying “yes” when it comes to consent:

If you asked your girlfriend, “Do you want a Hawaiian vacation for your birthday?” and she didn’t say anything, would you buy plane tickets? If you asked someone at the grocery store, “I only have one item, do you mind if I check out ahead of you?” and they stared determinedly into space, would you cut in front of them? Why is it that “you didn’t say no” applies only to sex?

[...]So tell me, do you want to have sex with someone who lets you fuck them, or with someone who wants you to fuck them?

4. On sexual harassment in science:

We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.

5. And another great one about sexual harassment in science, and how easy it actually is to not do it (contrary to some men’s claims):

But what about cases where you didn’t mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they’ve heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

6. Thomas has a great post at Yes Means Yes about how to stop rape by noticing predatory behavior, calling it out, and excluding those people from your social groups. Read all of it. (TW)

The thing is, rapists absolutely need one thing to operate.  They need people to believe they are not rapists.  Stranger rapists do that by trying to hide that they are the person who committed the rape.  Acquaintance rapists do that by picking targets who won’t say anything about what happened, or by using tactics that, if the survivor does speak up, people will decide don’t really count as rape.  If you want to do something about rapists, make sure people know they are rapists.

7. Ed (formerly of the Heresy Club) criticizes a common way atheists talk about faith:

Belief is a complex assortment of cultural, societal, and personal motivations. A clusterfuck if you will. And by unpacking all that complexity into “Herp derp, God’s for stupid people and crazies!”, you do absolutely nothing to lessen people’s reliance on religion in the first place. Which again, considering blind faith’s many potholes, is a perfectly valid goal to shoot for. The idea that we can shoo people away from religion by being insulting enough though? That’s dumb. And while I’m not saying that most organized atheists actively engage in that sort of behavior, it’s an attitude I see plenty of, even within my closer communities.

8. Olivia A. Cole writes about the sexual assault of boys, relating it to Chris Brown’s recent revelation that he “lost his virginity” via rape (except, it’s important to note, he did not refer to it as such; TW):

What if we have been normalizing male rape victims’ symptoms for centuries? This is not to say that every man has been the victim of sexual abuse, but I know more than a few who have been, and their cries for help—the ones that get such attention when our “ladylike” daughters act out sexually and/or aggressively—went unnoticed, chalked up to a male standard of behavior that not only turns a blind eye to promiscuity but rewards it. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

9. A great response to people who claim that they’re “just not attracted” to trans women:

But when some say for example “I am not attracted to trans women”, they make a blanket statement based on the assumption that they can tell them apart before attraction occurs, guess what: you can’t. Then usually the “I don’t like penis” argument comes along, but guess what: not all trans women have one. Then follows the argument about how magical cis vaginas are and what an abomination trans women’s vaginas are, nearly always from a person who doesn’t have proper knowledge or experience with them. Then a last-ditch attempt of “but I wanna have my own children” is thrown into the mix, but that is hardly trans specific as there’s plenty of infertile cis women, and some trans women get their genetic material frozen before they transition. All of this is just an ego trying to wriggle itself out of admitting that just maybe, it’s culture has taught it to be repulsed by trans women.

10. Trudy writes about sex positivity:

My vagina is not the place where I “prove” my politics to other people. That’s MY BODY. Why does sex positivity, just like sexual orientation itself involve “papers please” moments, especially for Black women? Well…this idea that I can only be a “whore” or “prude” is a racist, patriarchal, misogynoirist binary that directly connects to controlling images (i.e. Jezebel, mammy) used to oppress Black women. And unfortunately, it’s not only Whites who view Black women through this binary; internalized White supremacist thinking amidst Black people means the same views are replicated intraracially. Black women exist in every sexual orientation with a plethora of sexual practices, desires and emotions; disinterest or interest in heterosexual relationships does not make Black women “prudes” or “whores.”

11. Ania shared her heartbreaking story of being assaulted by a doctor (TW):

Sexual assault is about power. It is about the perpetrator feeling like they have power over the victim. It is not about sex. The inclusion of my genitals in this assault was incidental. The doctor in question wasn’t trying to get any kind of sexual thrill or fulfill a sexual desire. Who I was didn’t matter. She just needed to assert her own power over someone else, and I was the lucky victim.

12. Tauriq makes a case for criticizing media that you’re a fan of:

We need to start recognising that loving is not incompatible with criticism – who we are and what we create is not perfect and criticism acknowledges this. Progress is made by filling the cracks of things we’ve previously examined and thought could be improved upon. We hinder this process by insisting our loves are perfect, that none may touch or alter or view it differently.

13. At the Feminist Current, Cecilia explains why men who demand to be educated about sexist oppression are perpetuating that same oppression:

The most common argument is: If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn. This is how it usually plays out. Self-described Nice Guy interjects discussion with earnest appeals for feminists to engage with his personal opinions. Having pushed past his bristling discomfort at feminists being bitter, resentful and combative (but not before pointing out this sacrifice), Nice Guy is bewildered not to have his theories discussed immediately and in a reasonable, non-angry way. Despite the hundreds of resources on the subject which he could, like the rest of us, go off and read, Nice Guy expects women to stop what they are doing, and instead share their experiences of oppression and answer his questions. In an ironic twist, Nice Guy is unaware that by demanding women divert their energies to immediately gratifying his whims, he reinforces the power dynamics he is supposedly seeking to understand.

14. This article about women in the tech sector who defend or ignore sexism is absolutely brilliant.

Unfortunately, women play a particular dangerous and critical role in discrediting and gaslighting other women and their experiences and speech acts, allowing the industry to persist in a state of denial and providing a highly credible means of deflection from the issues at hand. Women in the community can often be seen berating other women for their “anger”, “negativity,” or “vitriol”, criticizing feminist discourse for alienating men, discouraging or minimizing open discussion of the ugliest issues in the community (such as rape and assault), or painting civil debate as feminist bullying. In tone policing other women, many women are co-signed and supported by influential white men (just check out Dave Winer’s championing of white women defending and indulging his egregious ignorance and obvious, unrepentant sexism) — perhaps hinting at the hidden system of reward offered up to women willing to carry out patriarchy’s bread and butter regulation. In these roles, women themselves act as the first line of defense against feminist dialogue in the industry.

That’s it for now. Have a great weekend and a happy Halloween! Don’t be racist! :)

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I have a post up at Secular Woman for their sex ed series! Here’s a preview.

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

Here’s the rest.

In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing

This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

A creatively annotated screencap of Yoffe's Slate piece.[Content note: sexual assault, victim blaming]

Remember my intent piece? This week we saw a great example of what I was talking about. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that can basically be summarized as, “I don’t intend to blame the victim or anything…but here’s why women shouldn’t get drunk or else they’ll get raped.”

Frankly, Slate has been on a disturbing trend lately of publishing needlessly provocative articles with even more needlessly provocative headlines. I find this tactic patronizing and harmful (s.e. smith has a great piece about it). I expect more from progressive media outlets.

So, I’m committing to not sending Slate any more pageviews, but I also feel that this article is very important to discuss. So, here’s a PDF of it that you can read. And here are some great responses that have already been written by Jessica Valenti, Ann Friedman, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay, and Feministing’s Alexandra. (Seriously, read those first, because they get into the nitty-gritty details of why Yoffe is wrong and I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel here.)

Almost as infuriating as the inaccuracy and poor reasoning exhibited by the article is Yoffe’s insistence that we as a society are “reluctant” to tell women to prevent their own rapes. I have nothing but contempt for people who take popular, extremely widespread ideas and try to pass them off as something new. But I don’t believe that Yoffe is really so clueless as to believe that telling women not to drink so they don’t get raped is controversial in our culture at large.

Rather, she seems to be aiming her article at the progressive community as a sort of plea for us to be “reasonable” and stop getting our knickers in a bunch over some so-called victim blaming. The solution to sexual assault is just within our reach and yet we won’t reach out and grasp it because of some silly political qualms.

Except that rape survivors do not grow up in cozy progressive bubbles where nobody ever gives them harmful, useless “advice” that makes them feel like shit.

They get it from everyone. Families. Cops. Teachers. Educational posters. Friends. College orientation. TV shows. Magazines. Advice columnists. There is no shortage of people telling women not to drink or they’ll get raped. None at all. It is a long and storied tradition that Yoffe is joining.

Yoffe comes across as though she thinks her views are unpopular because people just can’t handle the truth. But sometimes, opinions are detested and ridiculed not because they’re just 2 BRAVE 4 U, but because they’re wrong and harmful. Yoffe does not examine any of the negative externalities of telling women not to drink or else they’ll get raped, so here are some:

  • Rape survivors who were attacked while drinking may feel (even more than they already do) that it was their fault–as if coping with the rape itself weren’t enough.
  • Cops will focus on telling women not to drink rather than on finding their rapists.
  • Believing that rape is the result of an individual failing (on the part of the victim, not the rapist, no less) rather than a systemic problem, people will fail to organize meaningful collective action to end sexual violence.
  • Assuming that they’ll be blamed for drinking, survivors will be less likely to go to the police or reach out to others for emotional support.
  • Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?
  • This is the most important one. Rapists (or would-be rapists) will know that they are not going to face any consequences. This, not any lifestyle choice on the part of the victim, is one of the biggest reasons people rape.

We’re accustomed to thinking of people or organizations or perhaps even institutions as harmful, but ideas and opinions, many believe, are “just an idea” or “just an opinion” and should be respected no matter what.

But they can be harmful. They can have negative consequences. Yoffe’s do.

I’ve seen a few people online defending Yoffe’s piece by saying that binge drinking culture is dangerous and that we need to talk about it. Yes, we do. But Yoffe is not contributing anything useful to that discussion, either.

People seem to worry more about binge drinking when it’s women doing it. Men have been binge drinking since alcohol entered human culture. For women in Western societies, however, partying and drinking a lot–especially without the company of boyfriends or husbands–hasn’t been a socially acceptable option until relatively recently. Sometimes equality means that risky or unhealthy behaviors that had previously been restricted to one gender are now available to everyone. It’s unfortunate that this means that more people are doing the thing, but that’s part of what it means to have an equal society. Promoting inequality is not, in my opinion, a justifiable way to reduce unhealthy behavior.

So, the problem with binge drinking is not that women do it too. There are a lot of interesting and important issues around alcohol in our culture, such as:

  • many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially
  • there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers, especially in college and generally before people start having children
  • if you’re interested in certain things, such as sports or live music, alcohol is often part of the package
  • many people lack access to or knowledge of the mental healthcare they need, so they self-medicate with alcohol
  • if you don’t drink, you are likely to be pressured to drink
  • it is socially acceptable for men to use alcohol to manipulate women sexually

But Yoffe is not discussing these issues. In fact, she completely ignores that last item, which is crucial.

Yoffe treats women who get drunk and then get raped like people who get drunk and then throw up. Throwing up is a natural consequence of drinking too much. It’s a physiological reality. If you don’t want to risk throwing up, be very careful about how much you drink, or don’t drink at all.

Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking. It happens because people (especially men) are taught that you can and should use alcohol to get sex. They are taught that drunk people are “fair game,” “asking for it” by getting drunk. Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature or a law of physics. It may not be fully preventable, but neither is it something we have to resign ourselves to living with, the way we accept the fact that our bodies need oxygen or that things fall when dropped.

Many people–Yoffe’s intellectual predecessors–used to accept many things that we’d now consider unacceptable, such as women not having the right to vote and husbands being legally allowed to beat and rape their wives. But others throughout history have fought and dedicated their whole lives to making things better. There is nothing courageous about stating that that can’t be done. Rather, it’s the definition of cowardice.

Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave. It is not original. It is not edgy. It’s the damn status quo.

Intent: Just How Magic Is It?

There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

Occasional Link Roundup

Hello! Sorry for the intermittent posting. I would tell you all the things I’m doing that are causing the intermittent posting, but I wouldn’t want you to get too jealous. So instead, here’s some stuff I’m going to be doing soon that need some help:

First of all, on December 14 here in NYC, there’s going to be a big secular solstice celebration. The idea behind it is really cool: basically to help create a secular holiday tradition and strengthen the atheist community. There are obviously atheists who proclaim that they don’t need traditions or communities or any of that other pseudo-religious garbage (I’m being sarcastic), but for many of us, a sense of continuity and belonging is important for our emotional health. So, I think this is a cool idea.

Anyway, the Kickstarter has a few days left and has almost reached its goal, so if this interests you, please donate! And if you live in/near NYC, you should go. I’ll be there.

Second, Skepticon 6 is coming up: November 15-17 in Springfield, Missouri. They still need help raising money and there’s a matching offer on the table during the month of October, so consider doing that! I’m doing a workshop on Friday (probably at 4 PM) about good sexual communication at cons (a relevant topic these days if there ever was one). I’m also bringing my now-even-larger Cards Against Humanity set, so those of you who recall how awesome WiS2 was in this regard should be very excited.

Links:

1. A post over at the Fementalists’ blog discusses gaslighting and sexual assault (TW):

Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss.  People might think you are not okay with being raped.

2. Mia McKenzie is getting tired of the term “ally.”

“Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

3. On Disrupting Dinner Parties (a great blog I’ve just discovered), Rebecca writes about an experience with someone who did consent very well.

I was completely blown away by this experience. It was the first time I had ever seen consent practices so explicitly modeled. I want to pass it on. I want to take all aspects of this interaction (except maybe the nudity) out of the counter-culture setting and bring them to the mainstream. Next time I want a kiss, I want to say something like, “I’d like to kiss you” or “Would you like me to kiss you?” to show others how deliciously sexy consent can be! Articles or documentaries or blogs about what rape culture looks like and what not to do, or even about consent culture and “how to practice consent”, are nothing compared to the power of modeling.

What if the movies and the TV shows showed that perfect dreamy first kiss with one party saying “I’d like to kiss you” then waiting for a verbal or physical response before their lips meet? How different would our culture be?

4. Positive psychology presumes that an individual’s circumstances don’t matter, only how one thinks about those circumstances. That makes it ideal for privileged people but not so much for everyone else:

In its pencil and paper and online self assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter,  so much as what we think about them.

5. I hadn’t thought of this before, but all those posts you see after a person of color does something cool that collect tweets of people being super racist about it? Those might actually sort of perpetuate the problem:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

6. At Feminspire, Madison explains why straight people need to stop telling queer people to be “grateful” for Macklemore (or for allies in general):

This is exactly why we have an issue with the pedestal Macklemore has been given. The very same people who applaud him for risking nothing with a song about marriage equality are telling queer people shut up and take what they can get. When we speak about the inequality evidenced by the silencing of our concerns while straight, cisgender people can talk about the same things and be called heroes for it; we get called morons and told not to discriminate.

7. Lucia writes about a really gross M&Ms ad that uses the suggestion of sexual assault as its theme (TW):

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

8. Finally, the letter you have wanted to send to everyone you argue with online:

It’s with very real regret that we must inform you that your petition to play devil’s advocate has been denied. Thank you for your interest in the devil’s advocate position; we realize that this is disappointing and would like to assure you that your candidacy was considered very carefully. As you know, we receive an overwhelming number of requests to play devil’s advocate every day, and while we would like to accommodate them all, we simply don’t have the resources to do so.

9. Mitchell expertly skewers everyone whining about young people these days:

This is the generation that is scandalized by “hookup culture” as though today’s students are actually hooking up any more than they did when they were students (we aren’t, but fact-checking has never been your strong suit, guys, so we’ll try not to take your investigative inadequacies personally). This is the generation that talks about our generation’s lack of empathy and personal responsibility with straight faces while the companies they run bold-facedly lie about budgets for their employees, and dodge their responsibility to provide benefits.

[...]This generation deigns, so kindly, to lecture their children on taking responsibility.

10. On Storify, @ProFeministBro discusses the importance of teaching young men about consent, and Stephanie painstakingly documents my illustrative argument with a Facebook employee from this weekend.

11. Amanda has some tips for men who feel compelled to harass and abuse feminists online.

Read books written by female authors. Try to do it in a non-defensive pose. Instead of flipping through the pages, trying to find what’s wrong with it and why she’s clearly an overrated writer whose reputation was created by desperate women trying to prove something, read the book like you would a man’s book. If it helps, pretend the author’s a man until you’ve calmed down and started to enjoy the book. Start with Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and work up to your Alice Munros and Margaret Atwoods.

12. s.e. smith points out something contradictory in societal attitudes toward mental illness and medication:

At the same time that society hates mental illness, though, it’s surprisingly vocal when it comes to the use of psychiatric medications and therapy to manage mental illness. Taking pills makes you ‘weak’ and not able to ‘just handle it,’ while therapy is useless and suspect, something that people are only brainwashed into thinking is useful. People who pay to talk to someone for an hour (or more) a week are clearly, well, you know. Crazy, and the entire mental health profession is obviously raking it in by deceiving all these people with their silly notions of ‘treatment’ and ‘management.’

The disdainful attitude when it comes to managing mental illness is at utter odds with social attitudes about mental illness. If crazy people are so awful, if we’re told that it’s ‘okay to be crazy so long as you act sane in public,’ how are we supposed to be less crazy if we can’t actually get any treatment? This paradoxical attitude is widely in force in society and people don’t seem to realise how absurd it is; if they think that, for example, schizophrenia is a scary and dangerous disease that turns people into monsters, uh, wouldn’t they want people with schizophrenia to be able to access whichever treatments help them manage their mental health condition most effectively?

13. FInally, the Belle Jar has an amazing post on the lies depression tells you. All of these resounded with me, but especially this one:

Everything is your fault.

If you plan a picnic and it rains, it’s your fault. You should have been more thorough when you checked the weather. You should have learned to be an amateur meteorologist so that you could better read the clouds. You should have packed a canopy. If you go out for dinner, for your once-in-a-blue-moon, hire-a-babysitter-and-wear-a-nice-dress date and the food or service or conversation is anything less than exceptional, it’s your fault. You should have read more restaurant reviews, should have asked friends for more recommendations, should have prepared cue cards with talking points. If someone is unkind to you, it’s your fault. You should have smiled more, been more gracious, tried harder to be whatever it was that they needed in that moment.

Everything is your fault.

What good stuff have you read/written this week?

Stop Telling Harassment and Assault Survivors To Go To the Police

Note: Yes, this is prompted by something that happened to me this weekend. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it applies to many events and situations, so I’d rather the comments section didn’t dissolve into a discussion of me and my specific (frankly rather mild) situation. I’m doing fine. However, the snark is on high for this post, so please do take what I just went through into account before complaining about my “tone.” 

So, let’s talk about when someone gets harassed or assaulted and they make it public (whether to friends and family or, like, public-public) and everybody always comes out with the same line: “Oh my god! You need to go to the police right now!”

Stop, rewind. Please stop saying this. I know it’s well-intentioned. I know you want us to be safe. Please stop saying it anyway. It does more harm than good. Let’s talk about why.

First of all, it’s unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice is frequently annoying, especially when it’s coming from internet randos I don’t even know and who shouldn’t presume to know me. As is often the case with unsolicited advice, it completely ignores my situation as a young woman who’s just started grad school and is terribly busy and has few social supports in the huge new city into which she’s only recently moved. Do I look like someone who has the time and resources to pursue a court case right now? If we’re being honest, I haven’t even had time to call my doctor and ask her to rewrite a prescription I need, let alone spend hours having a lovely tête-à-tête with a cop who tells me I was probably asking for it by being a woman and existing.

So I don’t need your advice. Sometimes people respond to this with “Yeah well if you didn’t want advice why’d you post it online?” Oh, you know, many reasons. In my specific case, it was to highlight a ridiculous flaw in Facebook’s moderation system, to bring attention to the abuse faced by virtually any woman who writes online about feminism (or does anything online, let’s be honest), and to get some emotional support.

Emotional support, by the way, is not (necessarily) advice. Emotional support is, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.” “You don’t deserve to be treated that way.” “How are you doing?” “Do you need some distractions?” “Whoever did this is a really shitty person.” “This wasn’t your fault.”

As I said, I’m personally totally fine and I didn’t need to vent to anyone or anything. But I appreciated it when people said things like this to me. Many victims do. You do not need to pile advice on us to show us you care! There are better ways.

Second, any person over the age of 5 is aware of the fact that the police are a thing that exists. We don’t need to be told to go to the police any more than a hungry person needs to be told that maybe they should consider eating some food. I mean, really, do these people think we’re not aware that we have the option of calling the police? (I’ll grant that maybe sometimes people may not know that certain acts, such as blackmail or death threats, are a crime. But sexual assault? And still.)

So if you tell me to go to the police, you’re sort of (unintentionally) treating me like an idiot. Yes, I know that the police exist. And guess what? A dozen other people already had the same idea you did, so if I didn’t know about the police before, I sure do now.

Third, going to the police is not effective. It’s just not. So you’re giving me advice that is not helpful. The stories of what happens to women who report harassment or assault to the police are plentiful and really sad. Yes, sometimes it works out well. But generally, either nothing happens, or the women get revictimized by the police. (Sometimes, the police also do this.)

I have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed and threatened with rape and death. At no point have I seriously considered reporting any of these things to the police. I am not an irresponsible or uninformed person, so please trust me when I say that I have good reasons for not even considering the police as an option.

Fourth, telling a victim over and over to go to the police sends a message. And, unfortunately, that message is generally not “I care about you.” That message is, “It is your duty as a victim to go to the police, or else you’re being irresponsible and immature and making me worry about you and failing to prevent your attacker from hurting others. You are not responding to your harassment/assault in the right way.”

Did you mean to say that? Probably not. But I’m telling you right now that this is how many victims are going to perceive it. When someone becomes the victim of a gendered crime (or any crime, but we’re talking about specific crimes here), that is a time to consider this person’s needs first and foremost. You may indeed be very worried for them. You may wonder what this means for you or others you care about. It is tempting to treat the survivor as though they and they alone hold the power to stop these crimes once and for all in their hands, and all they have to do is pick up the phone and call the cops.

It’s telling that many of the people who told me to go to the police this weekend and who received a curt response from me (curt, not nasty or abusive) immediately took it personally and lashed out, whining about how rude I was and how I didn’t appreciate that they were worried about me. (Keep in mind that these were total strangers on the Internet, not friends or family or anyone else entitled to my emotional energy.) Of course. Because it was about them, and not me, all along. It was about their understandable need to contribute to the conversation and feel useful and tell a young woman what they, as older and wiser adults, thought she needed to do.

At no point was there any acknowledgement from these people that I was dealing with fucking death threats and maybe wasn’t in the best emotional state to be sweet and cheerful about rejecting their unasked-for, completely unhelpful advice.

That’s how I knew it was never about me.

Fifth, law enforcement is a deeply problematic institution that some people choose not to willingly engage with. I won’t say too much about this here because it’s just too immense a topic to cover in a paragraph or two. But yes, I have some ethical qualms about working with a police force that, in my city, fines women for carrying condoms (must be prostitutes amirite?) and profiles people of color with its stop and frisk policy. Sometimes contact with the police is unavoidable, and I would obviously call them if I were facing an immediate risk of injury or death as opposed to some dumb random Facebook death threat.

Stop telling harassment and assault survivors to go to the police. Stop treating us like we don’t know what’s good for us. Stop acting like the police are a panacea to all the world’s evils. Stop making it about you. Stop. It’s our turn to speak.