What Is “Survivor Privilege”? I Don’t Know And Neither Does George Will

[Content note: sexual assault]

At the Daily Dot, I have an analysis of George Will’s useless Washington Post column and many (but not all) of the ways in which it is wrong:

George Will’s misunderstandings about sexual assault are numerous and astoundingly ignorant. He continually uses “sexual assault” in scare quotes as though its very existence is dubious to him. He insists that if a man continues having sex with a woman after she said “no” several times, it cannot be rape, because she had willingly had sex with him in the past. He calls definitions of sexual assault that include non-consensual touching as well as non-consensual penetration “capacious,” as though using someone else’s body sexually without their consent is somehow not assault and never traumatic just because it doesn’t involve both a penis and a vagina. He denies that intoxication renders one incapable of giving informed consent, even though it’s fairly well-known that people who are drunk don’t always know or understand what they’re doing.

He even refers to women as “females,” cementing my belief that he belongs in an episode of Star Trek and not in the real world, let alone on the staff of an award-winning newspaper.

But perhaps his most egregiously out-of-touch statement is that “when [universities] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” Will does not elaborate on what, exactly, is so “coveted” about being a victim of sexual assault, how exactly universities “confer privileges” upon students who come forward about their assaults, or how these privileges, supposing they exist, are what is driving the supposed “proliferation” of “victims.” Evidence is less of a priority than rhetoric, apparently.

Read the rest here.

Trigger Warnings Are Not “Censorship”

In unrelated news, I have a post up at the Daily Dot today about trigger warnings. Excerpt:

Students at various universities have been trying to take trigger warnings offline by requesting them in certain educational materials. Predictably, even professional and reasonable writers and journalists have responded to this by unleashing a hysteria about “censorship,” “dumbing down,” “suppression of discourse,” “hand-holding,” and other terrible things that will happen if we choose to warn students about potentially triggering material before they read it.

First, a clarification: nobody, to my knowledge, has asked that students be exempted from reading material that they find emotionally difficult. If a professor assigns reading and a student chooses not to do it, that student’s grades will probably suffer. Even if they don’t, though, universities function on the presumption that students are adults who must be allowed to make their own decisions about things like time management, amount of effort put into schoolwork, and so on. Trigger warnings on syllabi do not change any of this.

Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that” and avoid it.

But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.

Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.

Read the rest here.

~~~

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A Review of the White House’s Report on Campus Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wasn’t really paying much attention to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault because I think that that kind of stuff makes a lot less of a difference than good old-fashioned grassroots activism, but I did pay attention when RAINN, an organization that I otherwise really respect the work of, sent the Task Force its recommendations, which ridiculously stated that we should stop blaming this whole “rape culture” thing and recognize that sexual assault is caused by individuals. Amanda Marcotte takes this down quite well here.

So when the Task Force released its first report recently, I decided to read it and see how useful it was and whether or not it followed RAINN’s lead in trivializing the role of culture and socialization in producing widespread sexual violence.

Here’s what the report gets right:

1. It acknowledges that schools have a strong incentive to avoid publicizing sexual assault statistics:

For colleges and universities, breaking the cycle of violence poses a unique challenge. When a school tries to tackle the problem – by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.

We have to change that dynamic.

The same thing happens with mental health, hazing in the Greek system, and basically any other problem faced by college campuses. It’s good that the Task Force seems to realize that universities aren’t exactly going to fix this problem out of the goodness of their hearts.

2. It acknowledges the importance of social norms about sexual assault.

Social norms research reveals that men often misperceive what other men think about this issue: they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of sexual assault and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble. And when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.

This is part of the report’s recommendation for bystander intervention programs, which are a good first step but have a number of problems that I’ll discuss in the second section of this post. Notably, the report never uses the term “rape culture,” not even in this section, but that’s the sociological term for what it’s getting at here. People think that rape is okay and/or that certain things that are rape are not really rape and are therefore okay.

What this section doesn’t mention is that teaching people that sexual assault is unacceptable isn’t just important for getting people to step in when they see sexual assault (or harassment, or coercion) happening; it also helps prevent sexual assault directly. As has been pointed out numerous times, rapists rape because they think (well, they know) that they’re not going to face any consequences for it.

3. It emphasizes research and evidence-based prevention approaches.

According to the report, the CDC plans to convene a panel of “experts” (by which I hope it means researchers) on sexual assault prevention to discuss best practices that will then be put into place. And the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women plans to evaluate prevention programs used on campuses to get data on their effectiveness. The report also lists three universities that have committed to research projects about campus sexual assault, though it’s unclear whether or not they are receiving grants for the research.

4. It recommends that campuses provide confidential victim advocates to whom students can disclose sexual assault without having to initiate a formal investigation.

I know many people’s version of “feminism” is raking survivors over the coals for choosing not to report their assault to the authorities, but this is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, a survivor who has nowhere to go to discuss an assault that will not initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation will not go ahead and tell someone who will initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation; they may not tell anyone at all. And students who initially do not want to file an official report may decide to do so after receiving compassionate and trauma-informed support from a confidential professional. The Task Force’s report correctly emphasizes the importance of empowering survivors by letting them decide what happens after they disclose an assault rather than making that decision for them.

5. It discusses how trauma can impact survivors and how school officials should be trained to respond to it.

Some common victim responses (like not physically resisting or yelling for help) may seem counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with sexual victimization. New research has also found that the trauma associated with rape or sexual assault can interfere with parts of the brain that control memory – and, as a result, a victim may have impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall. This can make understanding what happened challenging.

Personal biases also come into play. Insensitive or judgmental comments – or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, her prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s – can compound a victim’s distress.

Specialized training, thus, is crucial. School officials and investigators need to understand how sexual assault occurs, how it’s perpetrated, and how victims might naturally respond both during and after an assault.

Therefore, according to the report, the Justice Department plans to develop a training program to help school officials involved with sexual assault investigations understand trauma and sexual assault. And I hope that the bit about “questions that focus on a victim’s behavior” (or, what we call “victim blaming”) focuses not just on the fact that it’s hurtful, but that it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. Whether the victim was wearing a revealing dress or has had consensual sex with the rapist before has nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.

6. It puts all this info on a single website that students, university administrators, and anyone else who wants to know can access: notalone.gov.

Granted, I don’t know how many students are even going to realize this is a thing, but I’m still glad it’s a thing.

And now, here’s what the report could’ve done better:

1. Not using female pronouns for sexual assault survivors.

Although the report explicitly mentions male survivors several times, it often defaults to female pronouns. Why? This is so unnecessary and such an easy thing to fix. Just use “they.” Anybody who seriously has a problem with that grammar can deal with it easier than male and genderqueer survivors can deal with being erased.

2. Not treating campus sexual assault like it happens in a vacuum.

While I understand that this particular task force was created to address sexual assault on college campuses, it seems remiss not to mention that campus sexual violence doesn’t happen just because it’s a college campus. There are factors that make it more prevalent there, sure–alcohol use, the entitled attitude of many athletes and fraternity members, the close-knit social circles that make it difficult to accuse someone of sexual assault–but these factors also play out elsewhere. There’s a whole blog basically dedicated to showing how they play out in tech culture, for instance.

But it’s difficult to acknowledge this without using that dreaded term “rape culture.”

3. Specifying incentives for universities to complete the campus climate surveys.

As I mentioned earlier, the report points out that universities have a strong incentive not to do this, and that they will be provided with an evidence-based survey that they can use. The report also states that the task force will be looking at ways to legally compel universities to do it, but I wonder why they didn’t just include incentives for doing it voluntarily (perhaps distributing some of the grant money that way, for instance).

4. Implementing a simple way for those who are interested to keep track of the Task Force’s efforts.

Much of the report concerns future plans for research and implementation, and it mentions several times that updates will be posted on the NotAlone.gov site. However, looking over the site, there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep up to date on this. There’s no blog. There’s no “news” section. I actually take this pretty seriously because I do intend to follow these efforts, but I don’t know how besides watching the same blogs I always watch.

5. Less emphasis on bystander prevention or more caveats about it.

Okay, I get that this works in at least some cases. But first of all, bystander intervention asks students to expose themselves to danger by taking responsibility for another student’s choice to threaten, coerce, or assault someone. Men can intervene more safely than women, but 1) the programs target students of all genders; 2) even for men it’s not always safe; and 3) there won’t always be a male bystander. There won’t always be any bystander, in fact. In many campus sexual assault cases, the victim left willingly with the assailant because they did want some sort of sexual contact with them, but then the assailant presumed that to mean that they have a license to do whatever. (Because rape culture.)

I didn’t really see anything in the report about other prevention methods, such as teaching students what sexual assault actually is (contrary to popular belief, it need not involve both a penis and a vagina). To be fair to the task force, that section of the report emphasized the need for more research on prevention, so I’m not condemning this too strongly. It does seem (at least from what I’ve read of the research) that bystander intervention has been tested more than other types of prevention initiatives, and therefore there’s more evidence for it at this point in time.

6. Even more transparency.

In accordance with the Task Force’s recommendation, the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations. However, all it gives are the names of the schools, not what they’re actually under investigation for (besides, well, violating Title IX). Maybe there are legal reasons why they can’t release even a very general statement about that, as it is, the list is not very useful. There are tons of schools on it. (And, incidentally, there are definitely a few that should be but aren’t. Before you pick a college to attend, you should definitely google its name + “sexual assault.”)

I guess it’ll take time to see whether or not this will be more than a purely symbolic gesture. I think it has the potential to be, at least insofar as universities carry out the recommendations. While I don’t have an extremely in-depth knowledge of how university administrations work, I’ve been involved with campus activism enough to know that there will be staff (and students) at many campuses who desperately want to see these ideas implemented, but they may not necessarily receive support from the upper-level administrators who can make it happen. It pains me when I see sexual assault prevention and health promotion staff get lambasted for “not doing enough” when they’re almost always trying to do everything they can with the limited power they’ve been given.

And the reason those upper-level administrators aren’t always supportive isn’t because they’re Evil or don’t care about sexual assault; they’re generally people with lots of types of privilege who can afford not to think about these things constantly like some of us do. But there’s limited time and money, and there’s a lot to be lost if you’re one of the first universities to publicly and loudly take a stand against campus sexual violence. There shouldn’t be, but there is, and I’m glad the Task Force is trying to address that.

~~~

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The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not “Just Trolling”

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

Every few months the New York Times (or another similarly-positioned publication) prints an article about how Women These Days Are Having Casual Sex And It’s Ruining Things. The articles are often framed just progressively enough to get progressives to eagerly share them over social media because anything about casual sex that’s not from Fox News must be interesting, right?

No. It’s the same story over and over, and it misrepresents what casual sex is really like.

First of all, only a certain type of woman is ever interviewed. The newest offering from the NYT starts out: “At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior–”

Stop right there. Why are they always “slim” and “pretty”? Why are they always middle-/upper-class? Why are they always white? In fact, why are these stories only ever written about women, and not about men? How do men feel about casual sex? (You might think the answer is obvious, but that’s just because you haven’t talked to enough men.)

In fact, interviewing a more diverse group of people might provide insights about hookups that are more profound than “sometimes skinny hot girls have casual sex.” For instance, Black and Latina women are sexualized–presumed to be “overly” sexual–based on their race. How do they view casual sex? Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race. How do they view casual sex?

Poor women are sometimes sexualized, too, and they also face more challenges if their hookups lead to STIs, pregnancy, or sexual assault. How do they view casual sex?

Disabled women are presumed to have no sex drive, but they do. How do they view casual sex? How do they overcome the stereotypes that people have about them?

Fat women are stigmatized by many people, and also fetishized by some. They’re expected to be “grateful” for any sex they can get. How do they view casual sex?

Older women who still want casual sex are looked down upon because this is something that “kids these days” do. They’re expected to be married with children already. How do they view casual sex?

Queer women are often considered either promiscuous or sexless, depending on how people have categorized them. Asexual women, when they are even recognized to exist, are assumed not to want any sex ever for any reason. Do some of them have casual sex? How do they experience it? Trans* women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding partners. Do they feel pressure to out themselves to potential partners? Do their partners ever view them as not “really” women?

Polyamorous women may have only casual sex, but they may also have a committed partner, too. They may have several committed partners. They may have a committed partner and a few friends that they hook up with. What’s casual sex like when you get to come home to your spouse afterward?

Isn’t this all a lot more interesting, relevant, and important than interviewing the same types of women over and over?

One might argue that there are separate articles written about sex from the perspective of these types of women. But how come, when we talk about “hookups” in general, we’re always talking about straight/white/thin/attractive/well-off/able-bodied women? Why are women who don’t fit into these categories relegated to other articles, ones that don’t get published in places like the NYT and the Atlantic?

Furthermore, these articles generally present the same narrative about how and why people have casual sex. From the one linked above:

Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”

I absolutely do not doubt that some people, perhaps including this “A,” really do conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” to determine what types of relationships to have. However, based on everything I know about the way we make decisions, I’ll say that that’s not usually how it works. Usually, we make decisions based on emotions, and then we come up with post-hoc rationalizations for those decisions. Often this happens subconsciously.

A previous NYT trend piece on casual sex, meanwhile, blamed hookup culture on the fact that people just don’t know how to do anything different:

Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life? The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture,” Ms. Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ ” Ms. Freitas said.

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.

That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.

So, young people have casual sex because their cost-benefit analyses have told them that it’s more optimal than relationships. Or because they don’t know how to not have casual sex. Or because the evil technology makes them.

What’s missing from this picture?

Many people have casual sex because that’s what they want to do.

This is a story you never seem to find in the NYT. You’ll have to go to blogs for it, probably because it wouldn’t play well to the NYT’s audience. One of my favorite pieces along this vein is from xoJane and it’s called “I Used To Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I’m Glad I Did).” While I’m a little weirded out by the metaphor of “giving” sex like some sort of reward (different strokes for different folks, though), I can really relate to the basic message of the piece. For instance:

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school…or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place — a desire to enhance intimacy.

You will never find this type of sex in the NYT trend pieces. There, sex is of only two kinds: Meaningful and Committed, or Meaningless and Casual. But why can’t casual sex be meaningful, affectionate, intimate? Why does casual sex need to be with someone you don’t like “in person, sober,” as A says in the latest piece? Why can’t it be with someone you’re close with and adore, but just don’t want a serious relationship with for any number of reasons?

I think I know why these pieces always interview women. They think they’re reporting on some new and edgy phenomenon (they’re not) or writing about it in a new and edgy way (they’re not), but they’re actually repeating the same tired narrative about women and sex.

Namely, women don’t really want casual sex. They do it because those stupid shallow guys don’t want anything else. They do it because they don’t know what’s good for them. They do it because they’re too tragically busy for meaningful human connections. They do it because they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, the results of which have determined that a relationship would not be optimal at this time; the marginal utility of casual sex is greater than the marginal utility of a relationship. They do it because they don’t know how to do anything different.

But they don’t really, really want it.

Casual sex is meaningless. Casual sex makes you feel empty inside. Casual sex makes you forget how to have a Real Relationship. Casual sex leads to rape. Casual sex is unfulfilling. Casual sex is cold and calculating (see: cost-benefit analysis). Casual sex is no way for a woman to live.

If you think this is an original idea, you’re quite wrong.

I’m not sure that these reporters deliberately set out to write this story over and over like so many Sisyphuses with their boulders. I’m not a professional journalist, but I spent a year studying to be one, and I remember what it’s like to try to collect interviews and assemble them into a coherent narrative. To be specific: the interviews that felt out of place, that couldn’t be woven into that narrative, were left out.

A college woman telling you that she’s had opportunities for relationships but turned them down because casual sex is just too fun and fulfilling would not “fit in.” A 40-year-old woman telling you that her loving husband doesn’t care if she’s out hooking up with someone else a few nights a week would not “fit in.” And, for that matter, a young man telling you that he’s having casual sex not because HORMONES but because he’d like to figure out what he’s looking for in a partner wouldn’t fit in either, because men are only supposed to have casual sex because their penishormones make them.

We need to change the way we talk about casual sex. It needs to be more inclusive, both of people and of narratives. Writing the exact same story again isn’t just boring; it’s bad journalism.

~~~

Further reading:

The Letter I Didn’t Write

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual assault]

This is a long and intensely personal post about college, which I graduated from today. I’m writing it more for myself than for you, so feel free to skip it if you come here mainly for the political rants and psychological babble.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite about a book that some students were compiling. Any current Northwestern senior could contribute a letter, anonymous or not, about their four years at Northwestern, addressed either to themselves four years ago or four years from now. This fall, incoming freshman will receive a copy of the book.

I waffled for a few weeks, finally convinced myself that I had nothing to say, and let the deadline pass.

Of course, that’s not true. I had plenty to say, but I knew that if, four years ago, I had received a letter from my current self about my college experience, I would’ve packed back up and ran the fuck away. Why do that to an innocent freshman?

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I’ve heard this for my entire life, and it’s the little voice in my head that so often keeps me silent. But usually I can ignore it, which is why this blog exists.

This time it worked. While I won’t say that I have nothing nice to say about my four years at Northwestern, most of it is not very nice. So I stayed silent.

But now it’s my graduation day, and, as with everything else in my life, I can’t fully process or move on from these four years without writing about them. Besides, this is my blog, not anyone’s book meant to provide inspiration and guidance to a new generation of Northwestern students. This space is mine, and this is the letter I didn’t write.

~~~

[Read more...]

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

[Content note: suicide, mental illness]

A few weeks ago Northwestern lost yet another student to suicide. There’s been pressure building all year for improved mental health services on campus, and I think that pressure will soon culminate in real, helpful changes on campus.

At the same time, some have been saying that what we need is not better mental healthcare services, but changes in campus “culture,” such as a reduction in the stigma of accessing mental healthcare and an increase in our willingness to discuss mental health which each other.

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive; I think we need both. People whose troubles are relatively minor will benefit from increased openness about mental health on campus without needing any improvements in mental healthcare, but those who suffer from serious mental illnesses–the kind that can contribute to suicide–need more than just supportive friends and professors. They need treatment. Right now, it’s becoming clear that many of those people are not getting the help they need.

Echoing these debates, a blog run by Northwestern students called Sherman Ave posted a piece called “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience.” (Sherman Ave usually sticks to humor, but this time it poignantly diverged.) The author wrote:

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services. As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience. If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

And a commenter responded:

I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this. Practically speaking, changing a culture is like voting–it’s pretty rare that the actions of a single individual make an immediately noticeable difference. Westerners are used to thinking of themselves as individual agents, acting on their own and without any influence from or effect on their surrounding culture, and this is probably one of the many reasons it’s so difficult for people to even conceive of being able to make an actual impact when it comes to something like this.

You don’t have to be an activist, a therapist, or a researcher to make a difference when it comes to mental health. The following are small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued. Although I’m specifically thinking about college campuses here, this is applicable to anything you might call a “community”–an organization, a group of friends, a neighborhood.

1. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them the truth.

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

2. If you see a therapist or have in the past and are comfortable telling people, tell them.

One awesome thing many of my friends do is just casually drop in references to the fact that they see a therapist into conversation. This doesn’t have to be awkward or off-topic, but it does have to be intentional. They’ll say stuff like, “Sorry, I can’t hang out then; I have therapy” or they’ll mention something they learned or talked about in a therapy session where it’s relevant. The point of this is to normalize therapy and to treat it like any other doctor’s appointment or anything else you might do for your health, like going to the gym or buying healthy food. It also suggests to people that you are someone they can go to if they’re considering therapy and have questions about it, because you won’t stigmatize them.

3. Drop casual misuse of mental illness from your language.

Don’t say the weather is “bipolar.” Don’t refer to someone as “totally schizo.” Don’t claim to be “depressed” if you’re actually just feeling sad (unless, of course, you actually are depressed). Don’t call someone’s preference for neatness “so OCD.” These are serious illnesses and it hurts people who have them to see them referenced flippantly and incorrectly. One fourth of adults will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and you might not know if one of them is standing right next to you. Furthermore, the constant misuse of these terms makes it easier for people to dismiss those who (accurately) claim to have a mental illness. If all you know about “being totally ADHD” is when you have a bit of trouble doing the dense reading for your philosophy class, it becomes easier to dismiss someone who tells you that they actually have ADHD.

4. Know the warning signs of mental illness and suicidality, and know where to refer friends who need professional help.

You can find plenty of information about this online or in pamphlets at a local counseling center. If you’re a student, find out what mental health services your campus offers. If you’re not a student, find out about low-cost counseling in your area. If you have the time, see if you can attend a training on suicide prevention (and remember that asking someone if they’re okay or if they’ve been feeling suicidal will not make them not-okay or suicidal). Being aware and informed about mental health can make a huge difference in the life of a friend who needs help. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for people who need help or that it’s your fault if you don’t succeed in helping them–not at all. It just gives you a toolbox that’ll help you respond if someone in your community is showing signs of mental illness.

Learning about mental illness is also extremely important because it helps you decolonize your mind from the stigma you’ve probably learned. Even those who really want to be supportive and helpful to people with mental illnesses have occasionally had fleeting thoughts of “Why can’t they just try harder” and “Maybe they’re just making this up for attention.” That’s stigma talking. Even if you didn’t learn this from your family, you learned it from the surrounding culture. Studying mental illness helps shut that voice up for good.

5. Understand how social structures–culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc.–influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental  health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups–the poor, people of color, etc.–face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups–women, queer people, etc.–have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media–which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Dear Northwestern Administration: Wake Up

I have a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern today. If I seem kind of angry, that’s because I am. 

Dear Editor,

Today I learned that Alyssa Weaver, the Weinberg junior who passed away last week, took her own life.

I didn’t know Alyssa. I could’ve, though, because she was going to move into my apartment when she returned from studying abroad. We’d chatted on Facebook a few times. I had no idea how much we had in common.

Because, here’s the thing. Her tragic story was very close to being mine, as well.

I’ve had clinical depression since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it until the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, by which point it had become so serious that I became reclusive, miserable, exhausted, and preoccupied with the thought of taking my own life.

I went to CAPS. I got my twelve free sessions. My therapist was kind and supportive but never screened me for depression or any other mental illness. After the sessions were over, I was no better, had no idea what to do next, and deteriorated even more.

The only reason I’m here now is because, thankfully, the school year ended right then. I went home to my family, and I am privileged enough to have a loving, supportive family with good insurance that covers mental health. I saw a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants. I recovered, for the most part, although even now I live in the shadow of the knowledge that depression as chronic as mine usually comes back.

I’ll be blunt. The state of mental health services on this campus is absolutely unacceptable. We have too few staff members at CAPS. We have no orientation program on mental health. There are still faculty members at this school–I will not name names–who refuse to accept mental health-related accommodations provided by Services for Students with Disabilities. Unlike virtually every other top-tier school and even many high schools, we have no peer counseling service, although I have been trying to start one for a year and a half. There just aren’t enough resources.

The only reason we have campus events about mental health at all is because of NU Active Minds, an amazing student group that’s still fairly new. But they should not be doing this work on their own, and there’s only so much they can do.

Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.

I have fought tooth and nail to beat my depression and to find a supportive community here at NU. It breaks my heart that some of my fellow students have been unable to win that battle.

How many more Wildcats will we have to lose before the administration starts taking mental health more seriously?

Sincerely,
Miriam Mogilevsky
Weinberg senior
Director of NU Listens