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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Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.

~~~

* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Men always want sex.

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

Here’s the rest.

Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

[Content note: bullying]

There’s a beautiful video that’s been making the rounds on the internet. It’s an animated version of a spoken word piece called “To This Day,” in which Canadian poet Shane Koyczan retells his own experiences with childhood bullying–and, really, so much more. Here it is.

The video really resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own experiences with bullying, even though they actually had little resemblance to the stories told in this video. Although I was definitely picked on and called names by other kids at times, for the most part my tormentors were not children. They were adults. Specifically, teachers.

Teacher bullying is its own beast that can’t be addressed the same way as peer bullying, and likely has different causes. The teachers who bullied me seemed like they hated children. They seemed jaded about their jobs. Although I was often accused as a child of “thinking only of myself,” I picked up on this pretty quickly and I sympathized to some extent.

I think the reason they hated me especially was because, as a gifted, socially awkward kid, I asked for more attention than they probably felt I deserved. Once in fifth grade we were doing an art project in class and I wanted to find out if there were any other colors of construction paper available, so I asked my teacher. She burst out in front of the class, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you!” I still remember that, standing in front of the supply closet with her and being accused of somehow scheming to make things hard for her. By asking for another color of paper.

My 7th grade English teacher despised me for some unknown reason. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my memory seems to have blocked out whatever it was that she did, but I remember being terrified of going up and asking her questions, and I remember crying in the bathroom during lunch a lot because of something she’d said to me. If I wanted to, I could probably go back and reread my journal from that year and give you specific examples, but honestly, I’d rather not.

My 8th grade algebra teacher had a hobby of arbitrarily calling me out for no particular reason and accusing me of doing something wrong. She was lecturing once and I was taking notes in my binder. At one point I flipped over a sheet of paper because I’d filled it up, and she suddenly stops the lecture and goes, “Miriam, what are you doing?” My seat was in the back corner of the room, so naturally everyone turned and stared at me. I was older, more defiant by then. I looked right back at her and calmly said, “I was turning a page in my binder.” With no further comment (or apology), she went back to her lecture.

Of course, if these were just isolated incidents, it wouldn’t be bullying; it’d just be teachers lashing out and acting inappropriately. But they weren’t. Such incidents are the legacy of my middle school years.

I wasn’t the only one, either. I noticed other kids being bullied by teachers; some of my friends were among them. The terrifying thing is that a lot of anti-bullying measures focus on getting bystanders to intervene. Useful advice, perhaps, when other kids are the bullies. What about when it’s a teacher who grades your assignments too? Who could just as easily turn on you?

The sad thing about this is that initially, as a kid, I trusted and enjoyed talking to adults way more than I did my peers. I was always the kid who would rather corner some houseguest of my parents’ with a conversation about black holes or animals than sit at the kids’ table and listen to some boring conversation about Britney Spears or who had a crush on who or whatever.

But over time my negative experiences with adults began to outweigh the positive ones. When I was not mocked or falsely accused of imaginary classroom transgressions by my teachers, I was condescended to and treated like I was years younger than I really was–or felt. The fact is that kids of the same age vary widely in their emotional and intellectual development, and treating them all like they’re inept and immature is unfair.

(In fact, the condescension generally continues to this day, even as I’m 22 and about to graduate from college. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone more than a decade older than me that does not end up being implicitly or explicitly about my age, because nearly all the older adults I meet seem to be convinced that I need nothing more than their unsolicited advice and protection. Although this sort of thing tends to have very good intentions behind it, the assumption that children and young people are unable to make decisions for themselves and desperately need guidance is harmful overall. The more involved I get in online activism, the more older adults I meet who treat me with respect, but it’s difficult to forget the fact that for most of my life, adults outside of my family were often condescending or even cruel.)

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. So many people bear scars much worse than mine. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, sometimes from family members, are terrifyingly common among children.

Bullying is tragic no matter who the targets and bullies are. But I’d say it’s even worse when the very people who are charged with educating children and helping them feel safe and accepted at school are the ones perpetrating it. In fact, in our education system teachers are often expected to impart morals to children, too. I remember the “character building” exercises and the lectures about treating others fairly and with respect. What a brutal irony that was, coming from teachers who shamed me in front of my peers for daring to ask a question or just for being different.

I have many wonderful friends who plan to become teachers. I trust that they’ll be good ones. But at this point I just want to say this: if you’re planning on being a teacher and there’s any doubt in your mind that you’ll be able to handle the frustrations of the job without taking them out on children, please find a different career. If you are a teacher and find yourself snapping at kids because you’re so burned out, please find a different career.

This is too important a job to do poorly. Children are too dependent on the validation of adults, too sensitive to the massive power differential that exists between them and adults, to always be able to just brush off your stinging words. It’s unfair to put that responsibility on them.

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.