New Year, New York

One exact year ago I stood shivering in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, waiting for the fireworks. There was a huge crowd gathered, people of all ages, kids with silly string and noisemakers, couples with their dogs, all waiting. I was with friends–some new ones, some old ones–thinking about the year I’d just had and the one I hoped was coming.

Whatever else happened that upcoming year, the most important thing was that by the end of it I would be back here in the city I love.

In a sense I’m still waiting for the fireworks. Still waiting for everything to be happy and okay. Still waiting to be completely certain I was right to come here. Still waiting for this story arc of my life to come to its perfect finish.

I know I’ll be waiting a long time, probably forever, for that.

But as the clock struck midnight a year ago, I wished to come here for good and I did. How often in life does a wish that urgent and overpowering actually come true?

I’m very lucky.

~~~

Before I moved a number of Well-Meaning Adults told me condescendingly that they so hoped I wouldn’t get disillusioned by New York once I had to actually live in it and have all my dreams shattered. That does seem like the typical young-person-moving-to-New-York narrative, but it didn’t happen.

Of course, I haven’t been here all that long yet. But I’ve been here long enough to watch one season shift to another, and then another. That means I’ve been awestruck by all of New York’s seasons now, and I feel like I’ve been here much longer than I have. I’ve played tour guide to visiting friends and done the various little things you start to do as you realize that it’s time to settle in. I’ve had my fair share of those late New York nights, come home after 3 AM to find kids still playing in the streets where I live. I’m learning where all the Chipotles and Barnes and Nobles are and which subways take way too long to show the fuck up.

I don’t know that I’m happy yet, but I don’t regret having moved, not at all.

If I ever leave New York–which, someday, I probably will–I don’t think it’ll be because I stop loving it. It’ll probably be because the rich and powerful of this city have decided to make it a place where, increasingly, only the rich and powerful can afford to live. Or it’ll be because some dream job turns up somewhere else, or because too many of the people I love will be somewhere else for it to be worth it to stay here, enchanted but alone.

~~~

The truth is that I’m pretty sad a lot of the time. I miss my old routines, my friends, my family, Chicago, college, nature, pretty much anything in the world I could conceivably miss. As I wrote in my guide to moving, it’s a process that doesn’t end once you get there and your stuff’s unpacked. I have plenty of friends and relatives and things to do here, but all my brain seems to care about is that it’s just…not what I had before.

I predicted this would happen, that this would be one of those things where things have to get much worse before they get better. I thought my first year or two here would be awful. I worried that my depression would relapse completely (which maybe it has, who knows). I didn’t tell many people this because I didn’t think they’d understand why I’d do something that I thought would make me feel awful for a while.

John D. Rockefeller said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.” Sometimes “the great” is actually real shit for a while. Sometimes you never even get there, and in the real world, you don’t land among the stars if you miss the moon. You end up floating in the vacuum of space.

Sometimes I seem to do a lot of things that make me sad. This is only the latest in a long line of them. I don’t understand it except that, as someone for whom happiness has always been elusive, I don’t prioritize it very highly anymore. Living alone in New York is sad, but at least I get to live in New York.

~~~

Over the last few months I’ve watched myself change to fit into my new surroundings, sometimes in surprising ways. I’d remarked many times when I visited that people in New York are extremely helpful and kind to strangers, and while I’d never been one to refuse help when it was asked of me, I rarely offered it proactively. Now I find myself picking out the tourists and giving them directions, stopping to help someone carry something up the stairs out of the subway, suddenly sinking down onto the pavement in the dark to pick up the groceries that had spilled from a woman’s cart.

And then I think about how some of the people I’ve casually, thoughtlessly helped went home and told their friends how kind people are in New York, and how maybe when they come here for good someday they’ll carry on that custom. Maybe that’s how it gets perpetuated, despite what people think about New Yorkers.

But assertiveness and proactiveness are traits that can manifest in lots of ways. I used to shrink down and try to shrug it off when people harassed me, maybe thinking up witty comebacks hours later. But recently I surprised myself when I was walking down the street at night in Queens, listening to music, and some dude suddenly shoved an open stick of Axe in my face. (For a fun exercise, count the number of things wrong with his behavior.) I didn’t hear what he or his friends were saying, but without thinking about it or missing a beat, I yanked my earbuds out, shoved his arm out of my face as hard as I could, yelled “What the FUCK are you doing?”, and continued on my way without listening to the reply. I’m quite sure he meant no harm, but my response was mostly instinctual, and anyway, that should teach him about violating women’s personal space on the streets at night. It doesn’t really fucking matter what he intended.

I stand up for myself all the time in other ways, things I wouldn’t have done before I moved.

Another weird change, but this one I have no idea if it relates to moving to New York or not: although I’ve been playing music since I was 11 years old, I have never willingly practiced in earshot of people and have performed solos maybe once or twice. The thought of being listened to made me so uncomfortable that no matter how much I loved playing piano, it wasn’t worth it. But last week I came home to my family where I have a piano, and I completely shocked myself by sitting down and playing it in a room full of people. Even though I needed to relearn the piece that I’d forgotten and was completely out of practice. The fact that people were listening didn’t bother me a single bit, and over the course of the week I relearned the piece almost to perfection and felt even better about playing it in front of people. I am good, goddammit, and I will fill up the house with music if I feel like playing.

(One wonderful thing that came out of that was that I decided to ask my parents for a keyboard piano for New Year’s, so that I finally get to have a piano in my residence for the first time since I left for college. I think it’ll do wonders for my mental health.)

At the same time, moving here has made me crave and cherish alone time in a way I never have before. In Ohio and even in college, socialization was a sort of rare luxury and my brain operated in scarcity mode. That is, if I had the opportunity to socialize, I took it, because who knew when I’d have the opportunity again. While I enjoyed the things I did when I was alone, they always felt “pathetic” to me somehow, like I “should” be out there interacting with people instead.

Then I came here and social interaction became so easy to come by that suddenly I was desperate to cut down on it. I still felt weird about declining invitations or not going to events that I thought were cool, but it calmed me down to remember the sheer volume of things there are to do in the city, most of which recur at least semi-regularly. The world will not end because I didn’t go to some queer book club or poly party.

~~~

Usually with these New Year’s Eve posts I try to reflect on my life over the past year, in general. This year, moving to New York seems to be overshadowing everything else I’ve done with myself, which is probably not for the better. I did do a lot of cool stuff. I started speaking professionally-ish, I made a ridiculous amount of friends and started seeing a number of new partners, I went to grad school (which I rarely talk about either in my writing or to people because it doesn’t feel very important to me, but I still did it), I read a lot and revised lots of my opinions and ideas in response, I started working out again (which is a really big deal), I wrote lots and lots (and spent the entire year here on FtB, which is just awesome), and mostly kept depression at bay.

There’s not much to say about all that now but that, except at my worst moments, I really do feel extremely lucky despite how hard and sad things are a lot of the time.

Since this is after all my blog and most of you are probably here for the actual writing and not the rambling about my life, I decided to make a list of my favorite posts that I wrote in 2013. Not necessarily the most popular ones–just the ones I still find myself thinking about, linking to, and feeling proud of.

~~~

A few weeks ago, I was on a completely frozen 2 AM trek through upper Manhattan with a friend after having hitchhiked across the bridge from New Jersey (as you do), trying to get to the subway. My hands and feet were in that uncomfortable stage of freezing the fuck off where they just hurt a lot, and it was dark and almost completely deserted (some parts of the city do sleep). Had I not been with a friend, I probably would’ve honestly been terrified, but as it was, I was merely exhausted and extremely cold.

And then I looked up and saw a fire escape completely covered in Christmas lights. It shone like a beacon in the night, red and green. And though it probably wasn’t the first time I saw a fire escape decorated for the holidays, something about it went right to my heart–the fact that even something most people consider ugly and utilitarian can be turned into a celebration of something, the fact that you couldn’t even see the rust underneath all that light, the fact that folks don’t even really see their own fire escapes unless they happen to be looking out the window, so who could it even be for but for people trudging through the night in a lonely, out-of-the-way part of the city?

But this is something I’ve noticed New York does all the time. When I’m feeling my worst, when it’s the darkest and the coldest it ever gets, I find that the city shines through.

Until the fireworks–until leaving my friends and family to come back to New York starts to feel a little less like heartbreak and a little more like homecoming–I’ll keep looking for those little flashes of beauty in the dark.

Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.

~~~

*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

Occasional Link Roundup

Here, have some super-old but still-good links because I waited way too long to do another link roundup!

1. Greta posts a much-improved version of the creepy Christmas song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” along with some great commentary:

Yes, there probably are some women — and some men — who say No as part of a flirtatious game, to get their pursuers to pursue them. That is also part of rape culture. The idea that you really know someone wants you when they ignore your boundaries and keep pushing past your objections… this is also part of rape culture. (It’s also really sex-negative, reinforcing the idea that it’s bad and wrong to enthusiastically say Yes to sex when you want it.) I don’t like it when pop culture encourages, celebrates, and reinforces this idea.

When pop culture reinforces the idea that ignoring boundaries is part of a flirtatious game, it doesn’t just encourage the recipients of attention to say No when they really mean Yes, and to think that if someone takes No for an answer it means they really don’t like them. It encourages pursuers to think that No means Yes, or that it means Maybe, or that it means “I want you to keep trying.” And that makes them more likely to push past someone else’s boundaries.

2. Suey writes about being a student with anxiety and the unhelpful responses that people make.

There are some very warm-hearted and lovely people I know that have quit graduate school because it felt more like The Hunger Games than a collaborative learning environment. We need to stop applying a “survival of the fittest” mentality to academic success, wherein intelligence is linked to ability to endure rigor. I think it’s a huge loss of the academy that people I know to be brilliant and life changing have quit due to a lack of support.

3. The Feminist Griote writes about selfies in the wake of that one awful Jezebel post:

Fat people, queer people, trans* people, femmes, disabled people, POC need and deserve affirmation too! For many of us taking selfies is an exercise in putting our self-love into praxis. The act of loving, seeing, and accepting oneself in real time. Also, so what if people take pride in the likes and comments that their selfies garner?! There is nothing wrong or gross about freely accepting compliments. Folks need to stop pathologizing those who relish in the compliments that they receive. It takes lots of work and practice to be able to freely accept a compliment, especially when you struggle to see yourself as worthy and never was accustomed to receiving them!

4. Shanley writes about how misogyny in the tech industry is often attributed to autism or mental illness in a way that both stigmatizes autism and mental illness and excuses misogyny:

Importantly, these appeals do not represent any actual engagement with mental illness — something that is sorely needed in the technology and startup industry, where many of us suffer in shame and silence with undiagnosed or untreated conditions, where mental illness is incredibly stigmatized, and where very little community support is available.

Rather, it represents a dangerous armchair psychology — expressing no actual knowledge of, nor empathy towards, mental illness, just co-opting the ill-informed and stigmatizing representations of mass media to avoid actual engagement with behaviors and trends in the community.

5. Over at Social (In)Queery, a fascinating deconstruction of straight male displays of faux-homosexuality:

Public proclamations of support on the part of heterosexual men to end homophobia are significant and important in changing opinion about GLB identities. But, asking what these men are getting out of the performance complicates such an easy analysis. This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobic stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore and the Warwick Rowing Team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobic stance can’t call them into question.

6. Julia writes about the importance of communicating clearly as mental health professionals, which includes not using jargon when non-jargon will do:

Because social work occupies a weird non-medical niche in a medical world and we have a chip on our shoulders about the fact that we do real clinical work, our notes have to be more formal than the doctors’ notes. Specifically, social workers tend to refer to themselves as “this writer”, which drives me bananas. As in, “This writer attempted to meet with client, who was unavailable due to being in the shower.” I’m not sure why an awkward writing style proves our professionalism.

7. Remember those weird high-tech anti-rape panties? The Belle Jar Blog explains why they won’t work:

It also bears mentioning that idea behind this clothing operates off the assumption that most rapists are strangers, who attack women in dark alleys late at night, when actually the opposite is true – most rapists are acquaintances with, or even romantic partners of, the victim. So what would happen if a woman did have AR Wear’s Anti-Rape clothing on, removed said clothing of her own volition, and then was raped? It would be so unbelievably easy for a judge to rule that it couldn’t possibly have been rape, because the victim chose to take off her own protective clothing.

8. Tressie writes about the purchasing decisions poor people make, and why they’re not as “stupid” as many people make them out to be:

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

9. Crommunist writes about the myth that feminist men are just pretending to be feminists in order to get laid:

Now far be it from me to say that being a cishet guy feminist doesn’t give you some kind of advantage in certain circles. I’ve had sexual partners who I’m sure wouldn’t have slept with me if I hadn’t lived my belief in equality among genders. I’ve had a couple outright tell me that they were attracted to me, at least in part, because of my feminist beliefs. That being said, I’m sure I have a bunch of sexual partners who wouldn’t have fucked me if I had reeked to high heaven of the previous week’s physical exertion because I couldn’t be arsed to work a faucet. I’d imagine… all of them would agree if you asked them.

So yeah, feminism might help some guys get laid. So does showering. And the reason feminist women don’t want to fuck anti-feminist cishet guys is the same reason that women with functioning olfactory faculties don’t fuck guys who don’t shower: it’s because y’all stink.

10. Ferrett’s post about evaluating your feelings based on evidence really hits me in the feels (TW: suicide):

Being a depressive is generally living in the Land of Suck, but you do have to learn one vital secret of life in order to survive: A thing can be emotionally true and factually a lie. Which is to say that I wake on certain mornings consumed by the idea that nobody in this world loves me, that everyone would be much happier if I drank the Drano, and that my funeral would be attended by no one. This is not how I feel; this is how things are, so much so that on three occasions I’ve actually tried to end my worthless life.

Then, slowly, I gather the facts around me: My wife is cuddled up next to me, evidently content. My phone contains texts from people who wanted to talk to me. My blog occasionally contains some nice comments.

And I think: Though I feel as though no one cares, the evidence around me suggests otherwise. And, gripping the facts like I would the rungs on a ladder, I haul myself back to reality.

11. At Shakesville, Kate writes about the ways in which trans* people are expected to self-harm and/or be suicidal as a condition for receiving the healthcare they need (TW):

See, if we can’t say with conviction that we’re going to off ourselves if we don’t get the healthcare we need in a timely fashion, insurers, providers, and governments are always going to be able to deny us on the grounds that our needs aren’t real. Don’t get me wrong. Trans* people who publicly confess to thoughts of self-harm aren’t lying. It’s just that they’re frequently going through an exercise for the benefit of cis people. It sure as hell isn’t for our benefit, people.

12. Also at Shakesville, Melissa writes about the harms of the trope that sex is “natural”:

Sometimes partners who want each other more than anything and have no other ostensible barriers just happen to have bodies that don’t line up right, that don’t fit together perfectly. When it can take experimentation just to achieve the basics, the “sex is natural” trope can make people feel like failures at the whole sex thing, which adds a whole other layer of unnecessary pressure. Virgins often expect sex to look like it does in the movies, instead of the fumblefucking that our first time looks like for many of us.

For lots of people, sex takes some planning, some creativity, some ingenuity. And it also takes communication.

13. Aoife on telling bi people to just come out already:

One of the profoundly annoying things about being out as a bi person, you see, is the way you keep on having to defend yourself. And not just in the ordinary way that all of us queer folks have to defend ourselves from the homophobes of the world who figure we’re all a bunch of filthy sinners (blah blah blah ad nauseum). As a bi person, you don’t just have to defend being queer and also a decent human being. You have to deal with the fact that, unless you give sufficient proof, nobody will believe you

14. A great slightly older post on what consent looks like in practice:

If your partner is consenting, you will see them meeting you halfway on stuff, responding to your touch, touching you back, making approving noises, positioning their body helpfully, making occasional eye contact, smiling, giggling, kissing you, smelling your skin.

If your partner pulls away, flinches, draws back, goes still, goes limp, freezes, is silent, looks unhappy, starts holding their breath, goes from meeting you halfway to merely allowing your touch: stop and check in with words. Maybe they’re ticklish? Maybe they want to stop.

What have you read or written lately?

On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

Social science relies on models. (No, not that kind.) If you’re familiar with social science, you might be used to referring to them as “theories.”

A theory or model in social science is like a theory or model in any other science. It is developed based on evidence and used to explain various phenomena. A model that is not developed based on evidence (but rather introspection or assumption) is probably not very useful, and neither is a model that can’t explain much. (See: psychoanalytic theory.)

In a great post on models that you should read all of before going any further, Crommunist says:

The key to models is this: all models are wrong. All of them. Every last one. However, some models, carefully designed, can help us test hypotheses about the world without having to somehow re-create a process in real life and then observe it directly. But the models are still wrong. They are, as a necessary consequence of their utility, reductive. They omit some data, they make assumptions, they do not explain every single observation, and they force some observations into states that they might not actually belong in the real world.

And so we constantly look to improve models. We strive to use the appropriate model to answer the appropriate question: the nuclear model is perfectly useful for answering questions about electron bonding and valence, but it’s less useful when we want to talk about the behaviour and movement of electrons. Newtonian mechanics is great if you want to predict what a baseball will do, but terrible if you want to predict what a quark will do. In the case where an old model fails to properly predict reality, we develop a more sophisticated model.

It is important to critique the models we use because that’s how we make them better. It’s also important to distinguish between criticism and denialism. People who support and promote models that are often unfairly attacked by denialists who have a vested interest in suppressing those models may start to mistake useful criticism for yet more denialism. Critics should be aware of this and endeavor to avoid using denialist talking points, accidentally or otherwise. (For instance, this is probably not the best time to use snark as a rhetorical device.)

Supporters, meanwhile, can do their part by welcoming smart, useful criticism and by continually seeking to improve their own views and arguments. In fact, sometimes the best critics are supporters who care deeply about making their models better.

So what I’ve decided to do here is to look at three models commonly used in social justice and point out some of their weak spots. I probably won’t get much into actually improving the models or else this post is going to be book-length, but I might do that in the future. I think there’s a dearth of good criticism of social justice concepts from people who actually understand those concepts and are willing to engage with them in good faith and support the idea of social justice in general, so hopefully I’ll be able to do something the MRAs and biological essentialists will never be able to do.

Some caveats:
1. This post contains a lot of intellectualizing and a little bit of devil’s advocate as they apply to a few social justice ideas. If you don’t like these things, please don’t read this post, but please don’t argue with my decision to write it, either.
2. I’m pointing out a few weak spots in a few models. I am not–not–saying that I think these models are completely flawed and should be thrown out. I think privilege exists. I think rape culture exists. I think gender is largely a social construct. 
3. While you’re welcome to discuss strengths of these models in the comments section, please don’t try to do so as an argument against anything I’m saying. If I point out a way in which a model is flawed and you point out a way in which that model works, you’re not proving me wrong (and I’m not proving you wrong, either). If you disagree with my analysis of the flaws themselves, that’s a different thing.

The three models I’ll be looking at are gender as performance, rape culture, and privilege.

I. Gender as performance

The idea that we “perform” gender originates with the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who wrote a rather dense book about it called Gender Trouble that I confess I haven’t read. But most people who use that term probably haven’t read it. It’s a sticky idea.

Gender-as-performance works very well to explain why many people who do not identify particularly strongly (or at all) with masculinity and femininity feel compelled to act in masculine or feminine ways. It also helps explain why someone’s femininity doesn’t necessarily correlate with their sense of being a woman, or their masculinity with their sense of being a man.

However, for the people for whom their assigned gender role feels fitting and appropriate, gender-as-performance doesn’t really explain much. Here someone might argue something like, “Well, deep down, they don’t really feel that masculinity (femininity) is natural for them, they’re just doing it because that’s what’s expected of them as a man (woman). But I don’t know how I feel about making such assumptions about what’s in people’s heads.

Butler’s model is also weak when it comes to explaining the experiences of trans people, particularly trans women. In her book Excluded, Julia Serano discusses this:

The assumption that my gender is artificial or a performance is regularly cited by those who wish to undermine or dismiss my female identity. I refuse to let anyone get away with the cissexist presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am a transsexual. And I similarly refuse to let anyone get away with the masculine-centric presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am feminine.

I also find the notion of femininity as a performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can ‘perform’ femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can talk with my hands or twirl my hair if I want. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused as to why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or why the other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all of the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely-oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expression in order to survive, but at a great cost.

I was one of the latter children. I know that for many cis queer women, femininity is something that others foist upon them, an unwanted burden, an expectation that they are unable or unwilling to meet. THis is perhaps why so many cis lesbian feminists have gone to such great lengths to argue that femininity is artificial, a mere artifact of patriarchy. But for me, femininity was like ether or air–it was always there, just waiting for the chance to leak out of me. When I think about gender expression being a ‘performance,’ I think about myself as a kid, watching my S’s when I spoke to make sure they didn’t linger. ‘Performance’ was me fighting back the urge to be more animated with my hands when I talked, or learning never to use words like ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’ nonsarcastically. ‘Performance’ was going to the barber to get my hair cut short like my parents wanted it, when what I really wanted was to let my hair grow long. Like I said, for me, masculinity always felt artificial, while femininity felt natural.

Not all trans women identify with femininity, but Serano shows that the idea of gender as a performance does not resonate with her experience of wanting desperately to be able to express herself in a feminine way, even as a young child. In fact, if all gender is merely performance, the existence of trans identities makes no sense. Being socialized as a boy should make you a masculine man. Being socialized as a woman should make you a feminine woman. End of story.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if the inconvenience of trans identities for certain second-wave feminist theories helps explain, in part, the vitriol and exclusion that trans people have historically faced from radical feminists.)

Of course, it’s possible that, as a trans woman, Serano was born with a sense of herself as a woman, but not with a sense of herself as feminine. The latter might have been part of the meaning that Serano attached to being a woman, given the prevalence of messages in the surrounding environment about what being a woman means. While we usually think of gender roles as something children learn through socialization, they also pick up plenty of not-so-subtle clues about how people of the other gender ought to act. In this way, gender-as-performance might still make sense, in that Serano learned to perform femininity because she thought of herself as a girl rather than the boy that others saw her as.

But that seems pretty spurious. I’d have to see the evidence that children at that age even know what it means to think of themselves “as a woman” or “as a man.”

Further evidence against the model of gender as performance is that inborn psychological gender differences do seem to exist. They aren’t nearly as significant or pronounced as the media and some evolutionary psychologists paint them to be, but they exist. Some studies have shown differences in perception between male and female infants at ages as young as four months. While most psychological gender differences seem to be created as a result of socialization and all the processes associated with it, it seems very unlikely that in just four months, male infants could have learned, through differential socialization, to become better than female infants at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Although I suppose it’s possible.

If psychological gender differences that are caused by biology exist, then there may be a small biological component to gender roles, as well.

Butler’s model of gender-as-performance implies a false dichotomy between things that are both natural and genuine and things that are both constructed and performative (or fake). Even if gender is completely a social construction, that does not mean that its expression is always a performance. True, some people must perform gender, as Julia Serano had to as a girl who was expected to behave like a boy. But for many (if not most) people, their gender role does not feel, and never has felt, like a role they have to perform as an actor would in a play. Gender could be a social construction that still feels real to people, because in constructing it, they make it real. The fact that gender feels so natural to most people does not have to mean that it is all biological, and the fact that it is socially constructed (to whatever extent) does not have to mean it is a mere performance.

In her book, Julia Serano rejects both gender determinism (the idea that gender is determined completely by biology) and gender artifactualism (the idea that gender is completely a social construct) and argues in favor of what she calls a holistic model of gender and sexuality, which is based on solid scientific evidence and accepts a role for all sorts of factors in the development of gender: biology (including genetics and other biological factors), socialization, environment, and so on. Her new model is an improvement over the simplistic models promoted by both the most myopic biologists and the most myopic gender theorists.

II. Rape culture

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to rape culture.)

If the central premise on which the model of rape culture rests–that our society trivializes, accepts, condones, encourages, or even at times celebrates rape–were completely true in all cases, you might not expect rape to actually be illegal. And even if it were, you might not expect for there to be any stigma associated with being a rapist. But there is. The problem is that it takes a lot to be considered a rapist. Often, not even undeniable evidence of rape will do it, because we keep shifting the goalposts of what rape is.

But if you do find your way into the rapist category, you might actually face consequences. And, while that infamous study suggesting that atheists are even less trusted than rapists was flawed, there’s a reason the “even less than rapists” part was so significant to so many people.

The prevalence of rape jokes is sometimes taken as evidence of the existence of a rape culture. I’m not sure where I fall on this. Some rape jokes, like the one Daniel Tosh famously made, seem very rape culture-y to me, because the joke is a woman being raped as punishment for not being quiet and feminine enough. Same goes for every time someone threatens to rape someone for having an opinion they disagree with on the internet, and same goes for every time someone makes a joke about prison rape, because again, that joke hinges on the unspoken belief that there are people who “deserve” rape.

Other rape jokes, however, resemble typical jokes about awful things like death or cancer. We (arguably) do not have a culture that trivializes or even promotes death or cancer, and yet we joke about them.

It’s the response that people get when they criticize rape jokes, though, that makes the strongest case. I find it hard to imagine someone saying, “Actually, my grandpa has cancer, so please don’t make those jokes around me,” and receiving anything other than an apology. Yet when women speak up against rape jokes, they are often ignored, ridiculed, or literally threatened with rape. (Because nothing makes the point “I am not a creepy rape apologist” better than threatening your interlocutor with rape.)

Because whether or not rape culture as a model explains the existence and popularity of rape jokes, it explains the fury with which many men respond tot he reminder that rape is a real horror that affects real humans.

Rape culture as a model is also not very useful for explaining the fact that consent and self-determination are devalued in many other contexts that have nothing to do with sex. Children are expected to hug relatives whether they want to or not. Pregnant women are subject to constant belly-touching by random strangers, so much so that laws have been passed against it. People of color have their hair touched without their consent all the time. People who don’t want to drink or go out or try a new food or play a game are often pressured into doing so by their friends. The idea of getting consent before hugging someone is often laughed at.

You could try to intersect this with the privilege model and claim that people who lack privilege in particular ways are more likely to have more powerful people try to override their right to autonomy, but then sex seems like just a subset of that general rule, as opposed to a special case called “rape culture.”

Some people extend “rape culture” to include all situations in which people’s consent is overridden, including non-sexual touching and various social situations. But parents inevitably (and understandably) bristle at being told that when they wheedle their child into giving Grandpa a hug, they are somehow promoting rape. While there are parallels between that and overriding people’s sexual consent, I don’t think those parallels are strong enough to justify claiming that a parent who wheedles their child into giving Grandpa a hug is promoting the very same rape culture that gets promoted every time a victim of sexual assault is asked what they were wearing at the time, or when a man expects sex from a woman because she smiled at him or because he bought her a drink.

Maybe a more useful way to conceptualize all of these patterns together isn’t by calling them all “rape culture,” but by referring to them as evidence that we lack a consent culture. That is, we have a culture that devalues consent in most (if not all) situations. (Here I make a mental note to write about this more later. [Edit: Actually, I sort of already have?])

III. Privilege

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to privilege.)

One problem with the concept of privilege is that it’s not always very useful at the individual level. For instance, say you’re talking about the way that women are taught to second-guess themselves while men are taught to be confident. This is true in a general, collective sense, but you can’t point at a specific man and say, “This man was taught to be confident.” Maybe he was, but maybe he was abused or bullied as a child and therefore learned not to be confident. Maybe he has a mental illness that precludes confidence. Maybe he’s a trans man who was socialized as a woman (and, in fact, whose very stratus as a man is constantly being contested). Maybe he simply missed out on this aspect of normative male socialization.

Privilege may also fail as a model when you try to use it to explain why some people understand certain things and others don’t. For instance, a feminist might claim that a man doesn’t understand why telling a woman not to wear revealing clothes as a rape-prevention tactic is wrong, and that he doesn’t understand it because he has male privilege that prevents him from ever having to deal with this firsthand. But many women also give the same slut-shaming “advice.” I’ve heard many women, including ones I know very well, say that a woman who goes out dressed “like a slut” is “asking for it.” But they also lack male privilege. What then?

Well, then many people use the term “internalization,” which basically means that you’ve accepted the messages our society sends about the group you belong to and assimilated these messages into your own beliefs. This explains why many women believe that women should stay at home and raise children, that “slutty” women “deserve” bad things, that women are less logical or capable of certain things than men, and so on.

But in that case, privilege isn’t doing very well as a model for explaining why many people believe these things about women. The women who believe these things may lack the same privileges as the women who do not believe these things.

(The internalization theory also works particularly awfully when used as a debate tactic. If you’ve ever witnessed a progressive man accusing a non-feminist woman of having “internalized” misogyny, or a white person accusing a person of color of having “internalized” racism, and cringed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Privilege as a model is also less useful in discussions of gender than discussions of other axes of marginalization. Namely, there are very real disadvantages to being male. There are. You’re more likely to be a victim of violence, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be profiled by the police (especially as this intersects with race and class status), more likely to have the burden of supporting an entire family (at least in certain demographics; this, again, intersects with race and class), less able to show your emotions, more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, more likely to commit suicide (though not to attempt), less able to come out as a rape survivor, more subject to gender role policing, and so on and so forth.

I don’t know if this is sufficient to argue for a so-called “female privilege” (especially since most proponents of the existence of female privilege insist that one of those privileges is being able to get laid more easily), but I do know that there are disadvantages men face because they are men, while there aren’t really any disadvantages that white people face because they are white or that straight people face because they are straight. (Most people who argue that there are seem to think that it puts them at a disadvantage when other people gain access to the rights and resources that they have had for centuries.) The disadvantages that men face also seem to stem from the same screwed-up system of gender roles that harms women as opposed to any supposed “power” that women have over men, or unearned advantages that they receive at men’s expense. (This is why MRAs are so misguided when they point out ways in which men actually are disadvantaged and blame it on women or, more bizarrely, the small minority of women who are feminists.)

Male privilege is also not sufficient to explain the fact that men’s gender roles are policed so much more stringently than women’s. While a (female) tomboy may face some disapproval, she probably won’t face nearly as much as a boy who wears dresses (or even “acts” feminine in some way). But people of all genders who choose not to present as either masculine or feminine face opprobrium, too. Maybe the way to explain this is three intersecting privileges: the privilege of being perceived as a man, the privilege of behaving in a masculine way, and the privilege of having your gender “line up” with the sex you were assigned at birth. But that starts to get very complicated.

Another problem: once you start conceptualizing privilege as a quantity that can be had or not had, people inevitably start quibbling over who has more of it–the much-maligned “oppression olympics.” Not having privilege comes an optimal state, and having privilege becomes bad in and of itself (as opposed to bad if it causes you to be ignorant or hurtful). An an essay on how the privilege concept may prevent collective thought and action, Andrea Smith writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

This way of thinking about privilege creates contexts in which it’s okay for someone without a certain privilege to say a certain thing, but not okay for someone with that privilege to say that thing. Of course, I’m being simplistic; often people without certain privileges are still rightly criticized for saying inaccurate or harmful things. But I’ve definitely come across situations where people have outright said, “If he/she/they weren’t a ______, it would’ve been okay.”

Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, it makes sense that members of marginalized groups can reclaim slurs and use them in a celebratory way while still reading those slurs as insults when used by people outside of the group, because you cannot reclaim a slur on someone’s behalf. And in many cases, our priors suggest that the same argument can read very differently when coming from different people. But this is just a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that works in many cases but not always. At its worst, it can keep harmful people trusted by those they are harming, or it can cause good-faith critics to be ostracized when their criticism might have been useful.

For instance, when I imagine this blog post being written by a man, I imagine it being read much less charitably than it’s (hopefully) being read having been written by a woman. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t succumb to that bias myself, because I’ve read so few good criticisms of feminist theories written by men. (Which is not to say that men are categorically incapable of producing good criticism of feminism, just that the majority of it tends toward your typical anti-feminist talking points.)

But maybe this is just more evidence that more of us insiders should become critics, like Julia Serano, a feminist, did in Excluded, and like every progressive atheist does when they criticize some of the reactionary threads in this movement.

Almost everyone lacks privilege in some ways (not just the silly and illegitimate ways Andrea Smith mentions in her essay), so it might not be particularly useful to speak of “having” or “not having” privilege in general. It might only make sense to speak very specifically: “You have the privilege of being perceived as white, so cops don’t profile you.” Or “You have the privilege of having been born into a family with lots of money.” (I discuss this more here.)

Absent from my critique of the concept of privilege is the fact that it pisses people off. It’s this criticism I see most often, sometimes from people who actually concede that such a thing undeniably exists, but we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s divisive/makes people feel bad/turns people off of social justice/distracts from the larger issues.

The word privilege offends because the idea of privilege offends. You could call it whatever you want and it would still offend, because people desperately want to believe (despite what your mom told you when you whined that “it’s not faaaair”) that this world is just and that we’ve earned everything good that’s in our lives. Nobody who has not yet abandoned the just world hypothesis will react well when confronted with the concept of privilege. While I wouldn’t call this a feature, I wouldn’t call it a bug, either. Just something we have to be aware of and work around.

I’ve also heard the argument that privilege is a poor choice of name for privilege because in its original meaning, it has a negative connotation. It’s associated with having nice things you didn’t have to work for, like trust funds or inherited manors in the countryside. The negative connotation of the original word comes from the fact that people “of privilege” in this sense often feel entitled to what they have and are ignorant of the struggles faced by those who do not share those privileges.

But, negative as that connotation may be, it is not entirely inapplicable to the social justice context.

Inevitably, debates like these dissolve into arguments about whether or not a given concept’s name conveys its meaning accurately and effectively. I am sympathetic to these arguments at the same time as I find them not especially useful.

Of course I wish that every term we used when talking about psychology or sociology or politics sounded exactly like the concept it describes. If I could wave a magic wand and rename a bunch of these terms, I would. I’d probably even rename “privilege” and “feminism” (though I don’t know to what). But guess what? Plenty of smart people would still disagree with what I chose, and the people who chose the original terms were smart and knowledgeable, too.

Besides, I don’t actually know how to make thousands of scholars, activists, and ordinary folks all over the world stop using words they’ve used for years and use new ones instead. Even if I did, I don’t think that would be the most productive use of my time.

A better use of our time is probably cultivating in people the sense of free-spirited curiosity that will encourage them to look up terms they don’t understand rather than assuming, as many people do, that feminists use those terms specifically in order to blame, guilt trip, or hurt them.

It may feel sometimes that recognizing and acknowledging a model’s weaknesses will make it seem weaker to ideological opponents, but I’d argue that we seem more consistent and intellectually honest if we do so. Yes, privilege may not explain why men are disadvantaged in ways no other dominant group is. Rape culture may not really explain why so many people don’t give a damn about consent whether the situation involves anything sexual or not or not. Gender performativity seems to shrug its shoulders where the experiences of trans people are concerned.

Acknowledging these flaws allows for better, more useful models–which will inevitably have flaws of their own. And we’ll critique them too, and start the cycle over again.

~~~

Edit: Awkwardly, I forgot to link to my relevant posts on strawmanning rape culture, parts one and two.

Some Evidence Against Shame and Stigma as Weight Loss Motivators

[Content note: weight/size stigma and discrimination]

It is considered self-evident by plenty of people that shaming fat people for being fat gets them to stop being fat. That’s why a common reaction to body/fat positivity campaigns is that they’re going to make people think it’s “okay” to be fat. As opposed to…not okay.

However, even if we begin with the presumption that it’s a net good for fat people to stop being fat, research evidence is rapidly piling up that suggests that shaming and stigmatizing them won’t work. In fact, it may have exactly the opposite effect.

In a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors provide this overview of research on this topic:

Media attention to obesity has increased dramatically (Saguy & Almeling, 2008), as has discrimination against overweight and obese individuals (Andreyeva, Puhl, & Brownell, 2008). Overweight individuals are often portrayed in the media as lazy, weak willed, and self-indulgent (Puhl & Heuer, 2009), and as a drain on the nation’s resources (Begley, 2012). Because stigma can be a potent source of social control (Phelan, Link, & Dovidio, 2008), some authors have suggested that stigmatizing obesity may encourage people to lose weight (Bayer, 2008, Callahan, 2013 and Heinberg et al., 2001), and policies that utilize potentially stigmatizing elements (e.g., BMI report cards) are becoming more prevalent (Vogel, 2011). Little evidence exists, however, that stigmatizing obesity promotes weight loss. In fact, among overweight individuals, experiencing weight-stigmatization is associated with greater reports of maladaptive eating behaviors (e.g., Haines et al., 2006 and Puhl and Brownell, 2006), increased motivation to avoid exercise (Vartanian & Novak, 2008; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2010), and poorer weight loss outcomes among adults in a weight-loss program (Wott & Carels, 2010; but see Latner, Wilson, Jackson, & Stunkard, 2009). Furthermore, experimentally activating weight stereotypes decreased overweight women’s self-efficacy for exercise and dietary control (Seacat & Mickelson, 2009). Collectively, these findings suggest that stigmatizing obesity has negative behavioral consequences that may increase, rather than decrease the weight of overweight individuals.

The paper also reviews research suggesting that the reason this happens is because of something called identity threat. When an individual has an identity that they know is stigmatized and something happens that triggers their awareness of that (such as a joke about the identity or a person who invokes negative stereotypes about it), the individual may experience negative effects. Some of these are physical, such as increased physiological stress response. Some are psychological, such as feelings of shame or anxiety. The person may try to act in ways that “compensate” for the flaws others may perceive in them or avoid situations in which people might think poorly of them (for an overweight person, this may include eating with people or going to the gym).

In theory, all this stress, anxiety, and effort depletes cognitive resources available for other activities that require what is known as executive function–mental tasks such as regulating emotions, setting goals, using short-term memory, and so on. Research has shown that when people of various stigmatized categories are reminded of those stigmas and stereotypes, their cognitive performance on a variety of tasks worsens.

The researchers in this study hypothesized that feeling identity threat would decrease participants’ ability to subsequently regulate their food intake. Specifically, they tested whether or not exposure to news articles about weight stigma would actually increase the amount of calories participants consumed. They believed that the participants who would be most affected would be those who believe themselves to be overweight, regardless of their actual weight, because they would be the ones who would feel identity threat when reminded that weight stigma exists.

The participants were 93 female college students (45% White, 24% Latina, 18% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% African American, 10% other races). Prior to the study, they had filled out a survey that included a few questions about weight (the rest were just there to hide the purpose of the survey). When they arrived at the study, they were told that the purpose was “to examine correspondence among verbal, nonverbal, and physiological signals.”

They were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the test condition, they read an article called “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job,” which was compiled from actual news stories and described the discrimination that overweight people may face in the workplace. In the control condition, the participants read a nearly-identical article that was about smoking rather than weight.

Afterward, they were led to another room and asked to wait for the experimenter to return. The rooms had bowls of snacks that had been weighed prior to the study, and the participants had the opportunity to eat some of the snacks while they waited for 10 minutes. They were then asked to return to the previous room to complete a final questionnaire.

One of the measures on the questionnaire was called “self-efficacy for dietary control.” Self-efficacy refers to one’s sense of having the ability to do something and control one’s outcomes in that domain. This particular measure assessed the extent to which participants felt they could control their eating, avoid unhealthy foods, and so on. Various studies suggest that having a sense of self-efficacy is more important in terms of actual behavior than other factors, such as believing that the behavior is healthy or important. (For instance, here’s an example involving elderly people and exercise.)

The results were pronounced. In the weight stigma condition, women who perceived themselves to be overweight ate significantly more calories than those who did not perceive themselves as overweight. In the control condition, there was no significant difference:

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

Furthermore, women who perceived themselves as overweight had significantly lower self-efficacy for dietary control in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition, while women who did not perceive themselves as overweight actually had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

This means that, within the context of this experiment, women who perceive themselves as overweight increase their food intake in response to hearing about stigma against overweight people and feel less capable of controlling their food intake. The very people being targeted by this information in ways many people think are helpful are actually being harmed by it, not only in the obvious emotional sense but even in their ability to control what they eat.

One really notable finding in this study is that actual weight did not correlate with either calories consumed or self-efficacy in either condition. Perceived weight was the relevant variable. I’ve often heard people argue against the body positivity movement because but if fat people don’t think they’re fat then how will they ever stop being fat?! Ironically, the women who did not perceive themselves as overweight had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

One weakness of this study is that it is unclear whether or not the participants who increased their food intake did so consciously–or deliberately. If it was unconscious and not deliberate, then this finding may fit with previous findings about identity threat. If not, it’s still an important finding, but it’s probably easier to get people to change mental processes that are conscious and deliberate as opposed to those that are subconscious and unintentional. It’s also possible (though probably unlikely) that the women in the weight stigma condition purposefully ate more as a sort of symbolic protest. Oh, you’re going to fire me because of what I do with my own body? Well, fuck you, I’ll eat as much as I want.

Another limitation is that the type of stigmatization invoked in this experiment isn’t quite what overweight people might actually experience in their day-to-day lives. While articles like the one used in the study are common, the idea behind stigmatizing people so that they lose weight is usually more direct: for instance, telling them they need to lose weight, penalizing them for being overweight, and so on. Telling a study participant that they’re fat and ugly and need to lose weight would probably never pass an IRB review, but it would be a more naturalistic scenario, unfortunately.

While the sample used in this study is more racially diverse than many other samples in psychology studies, that really isn’t saying much. The researchers did not discuss any racial disparities in the data, but that would be an interesting direction for future studies. Also, all of the participants were young women, so it’s unclear how well this generalizes to older women and men of all ages.

With research like this, it’s important to remember that the findings should be interpreted much in the way that the statement “consent is sexy” should be interpreted. Namely, you should get consent because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s “sexy.” Likewise, you should refrain from shaming and stigmatizing fat people because it’s the right thing to do, not because shaming and stigmatizing them doesn’t work anyway. Activists rightly criticize research like this for suggesting the implication that we should stop shaming fat people because it doesn’t get them to lose weight, rather than because it’s a shitty thing to do. That said, I don’t think that’s an implication that the researchers mean to give. We should conduct, support, and read research about how human motivation works (and how everything else works) because it’s important to know. This is just one piece of that puzzle.

It is my hope, though, that studies like this will work where “don’t be an asshole” won’t. The most important thing to me is for people to stop stigmatizing and discriminating against fat people, whatever the reason they stop doing it, because it’s harmful and needs to stop. Then maybe we can make these people understand why they were wrong to do it.

However, this research also opens up a lot of tricky questions. If shaming people who are overweight did actually help them lose weight, would more people think that this is an okay thing to do? If shaming people who do things that most of us would consider Definitely Bad, like rape or theft or even saying racist things, worked, would that be okay to do? Many would probably say yes to the latter but no to the former.

What is clear, though, is that human motivation (and reasoning in general) often works in ways that seem counterintuitive. You might think that people would respond to the stimulus of “being overweight can cost you your job” with “well I’d better stop being overweight, then!” But that’s not necessarily the case.

~~~

Major, B., Hunger, J.M., Bunyan, D.P., Miller, C.T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51: 74-80.

What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness, suicide, abuse]

Some atheists love to compare religion to mental illness, or directly call it one. I won’t link to examples; it’s pervasive and has probably happened on this network.

While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.

This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.

Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.

“Nobody in their right mind would ever choose to observe a religion.”

Calling religious people mentally ill suggests that they do what they do because they’re “crazy.” I get that religious beliefs and rituals may seem bizarre to atheists who have never had any desire to hold those beliefs or perform those rituals. Sometimes when I’m at religious Jewish functions I sort of look around myself and feel like a bit of an alien. This is so weird, I think. Why would anyone do this?

A major component of mental illness is that it is maladaptive. People with OCD sometimes can’t function because they can’t stop performing their rituals or thinking about their obsessions. People with depression sometimes can’t get out of bed, shower, talk to people, go to work for weeks or months at a time. People with schizophrenia sometimes lose all sense of the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Religion can be maladaptive when taken to extremes, but that’s a problem with the manifestation, not with the core component: believing in a god. In and of itself, believing in a god can actually be very adaptive. When people feel like they have no control over the universe, when they lose someone they love, when a grave injustice happens, it can be comforting to believe that there’s someone up there pulling the strings. It’s not comforting to me, personally, but to many people it is. That doesn’t make their beliefs accurate, but it does make them understandable. You don’t have to be “crazy” to want to believe in a religion.

“Your religious friends may seem happy and well-adjusted, but they’re actually sick just like you are.”

We often hear about people who are restricted, cut off, or even abused by their religion. These cases are tragic and deserve every bit of the attention that they get. But what about all the people living happily with religion?

Atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness seem to be saying that these people are just kidding themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but that happiness can’t be real because it’s the product of a mental illness. Or they think they’re happy, but they’re really not.

If this is what you believe about religious people, ask yourself why you think you know more about their mental state than they themselves do.

“I consider myself qualified to diagnose millions of people I’ve never met with a mental illness.”

Armchair diagnosis is a bad idea. It promotes the idea that mental illness is whatever we feel on a whim that it is, and that random internet commenters are qualified to determine whether or not someone has a mental illness despite never having even spoken to them, let alone spent time with them in person as a diagnosing psychologist would.

“Whether or not I think someone is mentally ill is more important than whether or not they think they’re mentally ill.”

And in addition to that, the fact that probably zero religious believers think that their religion qualifies as a mental illness is a good indication that you should stop saying that it is. Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.

“People who say their faith helped them deal with their mental illness are just kidding themselves.”

Can’t fix a mental illness with another mental illness, right?

This is a tricky area because I do think it’s very fair to question the presumption that religion helps people with mental illness in general. First of all, people (religious and not) with mental illnesses are often told that they need to pray or “have faith” or repent or whatever, because some religious people believe that mental illness is a sign of insufficient faith or a punishment from god or both. Second, some religious people find that religion actually makes their illness harder to cope with, whether because of these responses or other factors. Some people may even become more vulnerable to mental illness as a result of something their religion taught them, such as shame or a preoccupation with doing things a certain way.

However, there are also many people who say that religion helped them cope with their mental illness, whether it was the faith itself, a supportive religious community, or both. I do not feel comfortable claiming that these people are lying to themselves or to us.

I wish that people didn’t need faith to cope. I wish we had foolproof treatments for mental illness. I wish everyone had access to those treatments. I wish we never had to send patients home saying that we don’t know what else to do for them. I wish we knew exactly what–which genes, which environments, which neurotransmitter deficiencies–caused mental illness, so that nobody ever had to feel like it was either a random accident of chance (terrifying) or an act of god (slightly less terrifying, for some people).

But right now, we don’t have any of that. So it makes sense that some people would cope by telling themselves that it’s part of god’s plan and that they can’t possibly comprehend that plan.

I want people to be happy and alive. That’s my first priority. Once they’re happy and alive, I can think about trying to get them to think more rationally and scientifically. If thinking irrationally and nonscientifically is what keeps someone from suicide (or from a miserable life), I accept that.

And as far as the community aspect goes, having a strong support system can be both a protective factor against mental illness and also a mechanism that helps people cope or recover. Building humanist communities is extremely important for all kinds of reasons and this is one of them. We’re making progress, but humanist communities still don’t have the scope or resources of religious ones. There are also still plenty of atheists publicly decrying these projects and boasting about how they don’t need them and such things are useless and pseudo-religious and for the weak-minded. That’s harmful. If a religious person feels that their church or synagogue is the only source of support they have for their mental illness, they might not necessarily be wrong.

“Religious beliefs are inherently bad and harmful to the individual, just like the distorted thoughts associated with mental illness.”

Some people, such as Greta Christina, have made powerful, compassionate arguments for the idea that religious belief is universally, intrinsically harmful to society, separate from the harmful effects that organized religion can have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about these ideas, but I’m still much more comfortable with the opinion that religious belief does harm to other people and to society as a whole than that necessarily does harm to the individual who holds it.

Most religious people would probably say that their religion helps them be happy, charitable, kind, and strong. I may feel skeptical about this, but they know better than me.

On the contrary, the symptoms of mental illness are very, very clearly harmful in a way that is undeniable. While people with mental illnesses may sometimes deny that there is anything wrong, they are often clearly unhappy, and their denial is often caused by fear of the stigma of mental illness. (All the same, though, if someone tells me they are not mentally ill, I would never argue with them.)

“All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”

I hate to break it to you, but irrationality is probably part of the human condition. Everyone is, to some extent, subject to cognitive biases. Almost everyone at one point or another engages in superstitious, fantastical thinking. Clearing your mind of irrational beliefs that aren’t based on evidence is something that can only be accomplished intentionally, with effort. Even then, you will never be perfect. There’s a reason the popular rationality site Less Wrong is called Less Wrong, not Perfectly Right or Not At All Wrong.

So if being irrational is a sign of mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, atheists included. But more likely, (extreme) irrationality is only one component of mental illness. Others might include engaging in behaviors that are harmful to oneself, behaving in ways that are not considered normative in that particular cultural context (a problematic criterion, but a useful one when used in conjunction with others), being unhappy with one’s mental state, and not being able to function properly in one’s daily life.

“My desire to make a point is more important than what the psychological evidence says about religion and mental illness.”

To put it simply, the processes that lead people to be religious are not the same ones that lead them to be mentally ill. As I mentioned above, religious belief is a subset of the sort of irrational thinking to which all humans are prone. Humans look for patterns in the world and easily form superstitions on the basis of those patterns. Humans also generally enjoy the feeling of being part of a group or having a community, and religion is an easy way for a lot of people to experience that feeling. Many people who are religious were born into religious families and were taught that god exists and [insert religious tenets here] from birth, so it sticks.

On the more abusive end of things, people may stay in harmful religious sects or communities for similar reasons as they stay in abusive relationships. They are made to feel by their abusers that they will never be complete without the faith. They are taught that they will go to hell forever if they leave. They are made to feel worthless and powerless. They are told that people outside of the religious communities are bad people.

Being affected by abuse does not mean you’re mentally ill. It means that someone who knows how to take advantage of people took advantage of you. Furthermore, religion is but one of many props people can use to abuse and control each other.

On the contrary, mental illnesses have substantial genetic and biological components to them. Studies on identical twins, including ones reared apart, have demonstrated fairly high concordance rates for some disorders. While the chemical-imbalances-cause-depression theory has now been shown to be drastically oversimplified, mental illnesses clearly do have some sort of neural causes, triggers, and effects. Mental illnesses are often (but not always) triggered by major stressful life events; they can occur when an individual goes through hardship with which they are not psychologically equipped to cope.

Unlike religion, mental illnesses are not taught to people by other people; they tend to occur when genetic/biological susceptibility lines up with stressful environments or adverse life circumstances. Unlike religion, people do not try to remain mentally ill so that they do not lose their support systems or because they are afraid of what would happen if they stopped being mentally ill. They remain mentally ill until they receive proper treatment, or until the illness remits on its own. Unlike (non-abusive) religion, people do not have a choice whether to stay or leave. Those who suffer from eating disorders, substance abuse, or OCD may claim or genuinely feel that they have a choice, but they actually don’t, and that becomes evident as soon as they try to stop. Yet countless people voluntarily leave religion every day. That doesn’t sound like a mental illness to me.

“You chose to have your mental illness, just like people choose to be religious.” 

Some atheists who make this comparison believe that having religious beliefs is a choice (and abandoning them would also be a choice). If having the symptoms of a mental illness is a choice, what does this say about the rest of us?

“Mental illnesses (like religion) can be cured by making fun of people’s irrational beliefs and shaming them on the internet.”

Normally recovering from a mental illness requires therapy, medication, a strong social support system, or some combination of those. I rarely see atheists agitating for better mental healthcare services for religious people to help them deconvert. In fact, providing people with the resources they would actually need to leave religion (as opposed to simply telling them they’re wrong over and over again) is not a major focus of very many atheists. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the work done by groups like Recovering From Religion and the Clergy Project. But I also haven’t personally witnessed anyone associated with these groups claiming that religion is a mental illness.

“Religious people can’t be held responsible for their beliefs; they’re just victims of an illness.”

If you do agree that mental illness is not a choice, however, that implies that being religious is not a choice either. That implies that religious people do not have agency over any part of their religious belief or observance. Not only is this offensive to religious people, but it actually suggests that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for their beliefs. You wouldn’t blame a person with anxiety for feeling anxious, would you?

“I don’t care about mental illness unless it’s religion.”

Relatedly, better mental healthcare is not a major concern of many atheists (the ones who don’t have mental illnesses, that is). It really should be. Mental healthcare is stymied by both religion and pseudoscience, and advocating for more research, funding, and concern in this area is a project that I think would be of great relevance to the secular movement. But the only time I see most atheists bringing it up is when the “illness” is religion. What about the 25% of American adults who will suffer from an actual mental illness (or more than one) at some point in their lives?

“Mental illness is bad and shameful; that’s why I’m using it to disparage religion.”

Sometimes when I see the religion-mental illness comparison being made, it’s being done in a way that is clearly meant to ridicule and put down. Atheists frequently employ language that stigmatizes mental illness to refer to religious people, such as “crazy,” “insane,” “nutcase,” and so on. Even when you’re not using such clearly hurtful language, though, you can still be perpetuating stigma by saying that such-and-such Islamist “belongs in a mental institution” or that such-and-such fundamentalist Christian “needs to see a shrink.”

If you think religion is horrible and then you compare it to the condition I have, how am I meant to think you see me?

“You are a rhetorical prop for me to use to disparage religion.”

And that’s why I feel like people with mental illnesses are being used as convenient stand-ins when someone wants to diss religion. I feel like our suffering is just a tool for you to pull out of the antitheist toolbox when you need it. “Look how stupid religion is! It’s just like a mental illness!” you say. My depression is not at all like a religion. Unlike a religion, I didn’t choose it. Unlike a religion, it has never provided me with rituals and communities. Unlike a religion, it was not something taught to me by people, not something I could’ve avoided. Unlike a religion, it can’t go away no matter how many times you tell me I’m wrong. Unlike a religion, it has no positive effects, ever. Unlike a religion, my depression didn’t just make me empirically wrong about certain things; it broke my entire life into pieces and took away my ability to enjoy anything. Please stop using that awful legacy to score cheap points against religious believers.

“Attacking religion is more important to me than being inclusive and supportive of atheists with mental illness.”

I tell other atheists over and over again that this is hurtful, inaccurate, and completely pointless. And over and over again, despite the massive support I get in these comment threads from other atheists with mental illnesses, they insist on using this stigmatizing, alienating language. They ignore our knowledge of psychology and mental illness and continue to claim, against the evidence, that religion can be categorized as a form of mental illness. Rather than diving in and learning more about how mental illnesses are defined and which mental processes contribute to religiosity, they refuse to let go of this rhetorical tool.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that deep down many people think so poorly of people with mental illnesses that they know how effective it can be to compare anything you think is bad to a mental illness. It happens all the time.

But considering how many people I know in this community who are diagnosed with a mental illness, I would cautiously say that maybe you shouldn’t keep alienating us. I’m just one person, but I have serious qualms about working with an atheist leader or organization that holds the view that religion is a mental illness. I doubt I’m the only one.

Find a better argument. Find one that is accurate, first of all, and that stomps on as few already-marginalized people as possible.

~~~

Moderation note: I have finals this week and am unlikely to be around to answer every single question and argument I get. I will moderate strictly for comments that stigmatize mental illness, though. If this piece sets off lots of debates in the comment section, hopefully they can flow smoothly and somewhat productively without much input from me.