The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.


Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

Why Madonna Should’ve Asked Drake for Consent

[Content note: sexual assault]

My latest Daily Dot piece is about Madonna and Drake’s kiss at Coachella.

When Madonna took Drake by surprise with a kiss during their Coachellaperformance, the pop singer made waves on the Internet, provoking discomfort and disgust. Some of it was because Madonna is “old,” while others argued Drake’s reaction suggested a lack of consent.

However, on Tuesday, the Canadian rapper responded on his Instagram, clarifying that he had no problem with what happened and thanking Madonna for the impromptu make-out session:

Rape Isn’t a Fashion Statement

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about rape “joke” t-shirts.

An unnamed Coachella attendee is making headlines online after Jemayel Khawaja, managing editor of Thump, tweeted a photo of him wearing a shirt with what I assume is meant to be a “joke” about rape:

The shirt, which is presumably a reference to Fatboy Slim’s song, “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat,” is not that unusual. Similar ones have made the rounds online in recent years, prompting retailers to hastily pull them off their shelves.

For example, the SM Store, located in the Philippines, caused a backlash after a customer found a shirt with the slogan “It’s Not Rape, It’s a Snuggle with a Struggle.” Online retailer eBay was criticized for selling shirts saying “I’m Feeling Rapey” and “Sometimes No Means Yes.” Solid Gold Bomb, a clothing company that uses automation to generate t-shirt slogans, sold shirts saying, “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” on Amazon. Topman sold a shirt that featured a checklist of excuses for domestic violence, such as “You Provoked Me” and “I Was Drunk.” Anti-violence advocates rightfully pointed out that these are actual excuses that abusers use all the time.

Why do these shirts keep being made and sold? The eBay shirts were oh-so-helpfully labeled “offensive cool geeky funny” in the online store, and that provides a clue:

Screengrab via eBay

Some people like to wear (or make) clothing with “offensive” slogans because they think it identifies them as someone who doesn’t care about others’ opinions of them, which therefore makes them “cool.” However, if anything, filling your closet with these types of shirts marks you as someone who desperately wants to seem “cool” more than anything else.

As for “geeky,” I don’t know where that comes from, except maybe a cynical assumption on the part of the shirt’s designer that geeky people would want to wear such a thing. And “funny?” Well, given how many comedians are still trying to use rape as a punchline, it’s obvious that people still find it funny.

Sexual assault can be funny, in a certain context, when joked about by certain people. But jokes about rape that work tend to make fun of rapists or people who engage in rape apologetics, not actual or potential victims. The “joke” in the Coachella guy’s shirt, if there even is one, is “I find raping people as necessary for my continued survival as sleeping and eating.”

Read the rest here.

Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Now that the report on Rolling Stone and its coverage of rape at UVA has come out, I’ve written a Daily Dot piece about how the magazine still isn’t taking full responsibility for its mistakes.

On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review released its report on Rolling Stone’s infamous article, “A Rape on Campus,” about the alleged gang rape of “Jackie,” a student at the University of Virginia. Published in November 2014, the article quickly provoked critics who claimed that some of the details about the incident just didn’t line up.

The Columbia report extensively details the journalistic “failure” of the now-retracted piece, and many are assuming, as usual, that this means that the survivor lied. Meanwhile, the leadership of Rolling Stone is still blaming Jackie for their failure in ways both subtle and not. According to the New York Times, the magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, was quite clear about where the blame should go:

The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Although it is possible that Jackie lied, it is unlikely for reasons that I discussedback when the original article was first being put through the online wringer. The errors she made in telling her story are completely consistent with the neurobiology of trauma. There is no evidence that Jackie is an “expert fabulist storyteller,” and you’d think this whole scandal would have taught Wenner not to make public statements without evidence.

But not everyone sees Jackie as the scapegoat. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said in a press conference, “We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault. As a matter of journalism, this was a failure of methodology.”

Why is Rolling Stone still blaming Jackie, even though the Columbia report documents the magazine’s errors in 13,000 meticulous words? Probably because it’s easy to do. Much of the public already seems to believe that Jackie lied, and many of them seem to believe that she lied intentionally. The thought process is that, sure, the writer and editor could’ve been more careful (and to their credit,Rolling Stone has acknowledged that), but lying is bad and it’s the liar’s fault, so that’s where the blame should really go.

Despite acknowledging their missteps, the Rolling Stone staff doesn’t seem to be planning on making any changes in the wake of this massive journalistic failure. Will Dana, the editor of the retracted article, says in the Columbia report, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” But the report claims that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors.”

Especially controversial is the fact that Rolling Stone won’t be firing anyone involved in the debacle. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Jill Geisner says that Rolling Stone’s mistakes were very serious and that firing the staff involved might be a good idea: “Firings send a message that certain behavior is unacceptable. I don’t advocate them for public relations purposes, but rather to rebuild a team and restore trust.”

Whether or not anyone at Rolling Stone is fired over this, though, it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting.

Read the rest here.

Uber Can’t Fix Rape Culture

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about Uber, rape culture, and what the service can and can’t do to prevent sexual assault.

On Wednesday, ubiquitous ridesharing app Uber announced a partnership with UN Women, promising to create a million jobs for women by the year 2020. Currently, 14 percent of Uber’s 150,000 drivers are women, double the percentage of female cab drivers.

Although there’s much to praise about the new initiative, which could help womenworldwide achieve financial independence, some wonder if this bold move is a response to mounting criticisms of Uber’s handling of sexual violence.

In one terrifying incident in India, a male Uber driver allegedly kidnapped and raped a female passenger. In response, Uber apologized and promised to look into options to make its service safer. It also introduced a “panic button” feature that allows riders to alert the police and a few selected friends or family members of their location.

This feature seems like it could go a long way to increasing both actual safety and feelings of safety, but it is only available to riders, not drivers, and—for some reason—only in India. Uber did not provide any explanation for this, suggesting that the company either views the alleged rape as an isolated incident or one unique to India specifically.

But as we know, rape with and without the aid of Uber is all too common all over the world, including within the United States. In the past year, Uber drivers have allegedly assaulted riders in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Washington, DC. In response, a website called Who’s Driving You?, which appears to take a strong stance against ride-sharing services, was formed to document these incidents.

While these assaults may make seem like drivers hold all the power over riders, male riders have found ways to harass and abuse female Uber drivers, too. One of those ways involves exploiting the fact that Uber allows riders to call drivers using an anonymized phone number.

Read the rest here.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.



1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

Why Subtle Sexism in Tech Matters

[Content note: sexual harassment, bullying]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about tech sexism.

When we think of a “hostile workplace environment,” we often think of the blatant, obvious things—like inappropriate touching, overtly sexual comments, and the implication that the boss needs “a favor” before you can get a promotion.

But for women in tech—an industry that has been making the news lately for its poor representation of women, many of whom are leaving Silicon Valley in droves—it’s the more subtle things that push them out.

For instance, Tracy Chou, now an engineer at Pinterest, says of a previous experience: “The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism.”

Women of color particularly face the “double jeopardy” of raceand gender. For instance, almost half of black and Latina women working as scientists report being mistaken for janitorsin their workplace. Such comments send a subtle message that they don’t belong in the lab or the office.

It’s easy for those who are not targeted by such comments and behaviors to dismiss them as “not such a big deal” and to tell women to “grow a thicker skin”—or, of course, to deny that they happen at all. However, that betrays a lack of understanding of social psychology.

Here’s an analogy that may be familiar to many men working in the tech sector: school bullying. While some bullies use overt physical violence against their targets, many do not. It’s the mean note passed to you in class. It’s the way people roll their eyes or turn away or whisper exaggeratedly as you pass in the halls. It’s the backhanded compliments: ”Nice shirt. Did you get it at Goodwill?” “Wow, you actually managed to get a date to Homecoming!” It’s the comments and pranks that are just a little too cruel to be a joke between friends.

When children who are being bullied try to tell teachers or other adults, these authority figures often either deny outright that there is a problem or assume that unless physical violence is happening, that there’s no real danger. (Even then, many adults are reluctant to get involved.) Confronting bullies, of course, is useless. They often gaslight their victims: “We were just joking around!” “What’s the problem? I was trying to give you a compliment!” “Of course, we want you to hang out with us!”

I see similar dynamics going on in tech and other STEM fields. Women give examples of how their male coworkers create a hostile work environment, but those with the power to change things deny or ignore the problem. Meanwhile, women know what they’re experiencing, and their bullies know exactly what they’re doing.

Read the rest here.

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

How to Get Away with Rape

[Content note: rape & sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about excuses people make when accused of rape.

In 2013, two then-students at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, allegedly raped an unconscious female student on campus. They used a cell phone to capture footage, which also shows Batey urinating on the victim and using racial slurs.

Unlike most accused rapists, Vandenburg and Batey are now on trial. As the trial opened this past week, the defense team made some interesting comments about Batey’s culpability.

Batey’s attorney said the football player from Nashville was influenced by a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.

The atmosphere “changed the rest of his life,” and Batey was too drunk at the time to deliberately commit a crime, he added.

The reasoning seems to be that Batey has been somehow wronged by this university and its campus environment in a way that is relevant to the matter of his innocence or lack thereof. (The question of whether or not being drunk should influence culpability is a separate one that I will leave to a separate article.)

This seems like a convenient way of obfuscating the issue. Of course Batey was influenced in all sorts of ways by his environment. We all are. That’s the nature of being a social species. But ultimately the burden of making the decision falls on the individual making it, and part of being an adult is accepting that responsibility.

This got me thinking about other bad and illogical excuses people make when accused of rape.

1) “I’m the real victim here.”

Usually this means “victim of a false rape accusation,” but clearly Cory Batey and his lawyers didn’t have that option–there was video evidence. Instead, Batey is the victim of “a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.” The implication seems to be that none of this would ever have happened if Batey had not found himself (well, chose to place himself) in such a campus environment.

I’ll be the first to endorse the claim that many college campuses have unhealthy cultures, and this can impact people in all sorts of ways. (Not necessarily negative ways—some people respond to these environments by becoming passionate activists for a better culture.)

Short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone.

However, short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone—or to urinate on them, for that matter. Batey’s peers and environment may have suggested to him that this sort of behavior is OK, but it is not too much to expect an adult to be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to rape someone, especially if that adult’s upbringing contrasted so greatly with this campus culture.

That said, buried deep within the obfuscation and rationalization that Batey’s lawyers are presenting here is actually a nugget of truth that anti-rape activists have been repeating for years: Many campuses have a really unhealthy and dangerous climate when it comes to things like binge drinking and sexual assault. Acknowledging this and working to change it, however, does not mean excusing those who commit rape.

2) “She was asking for it.”

This is, of course, entirely self-contradictory. If someone was actually asking for you to have sex with them, then it was not rape. If someone was not asking (or consenting) to have sex with you, then it was rape. If someone makes a rape accusation, then that means they were not asking. The only way to actually “ask” to have sex is to, well, ask for it—not to drink alcohol, not to dress sexy, not to dance or flirt with you, and not to make out with you.

We hear this excuse a lot with sexual harassment, too, not just assault. The reason I used a female pronoun is because this is typically only applied to female survivors. Why? Probably because (white, conventionally attractive) women are presumed to be so irresistibly appealing that men cannot possibly restrain themselves—therefore, those women were “asking” for whatever it is the men did.

But we didn’t ask for you to have such poor self-control that you cannot keep yourself from catcalling or raping us. And, more to the point, rape is typically a premeditated act. It has nothing to do with irresistible urges.

Read the rest here.