Before You Speculate About Amanda Bynes’ Mental State

[Content note: mental illness, ableism]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about the gleeful speculations about Amanda Bynes’ supposed mental illness.

Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”

Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.

Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.

They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.

Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.

How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?

For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.

Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”

Read the rest here.

A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence

[Content note: domestic violence and abuse]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about how journalists and pundits can do a better job of covering stories about domestic violence.

Until I read Michael Powell’s recent New York Times column about suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, I had no idea that domestic violence could possibly be delivered in a “professional” manner. Powell cleared that up:

Say this for Ray Rice: His left cross was of professional quality, a short, explosive punch. And his fiancée’s head snapped back as if she’d been shot.

You watch that video and you get the national freakout.

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade had some unsolicited advice for Janay Rice: “The message is, take the stairs.” (He has sinceapologized.)

Domestic violence is a difficult subject to talk about sensitively. Humor, blame, unsolicited advice, speculation—these are all ways in which people try to ease the discomfort of confronting such a serious thing head-on. But they don’t necessarily lead to a productive or respectful discussion.

In honor of Michael Powell, Brian Kilmeade, and every other journalist and pundit who can’t seem to cover this issue appropriately, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you write about or discuss domestic violence.

1) Extend the benefit of the doubt to the survivor.

When someone is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are always asked by that person’s fans and defenders to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” Generally, this means, “Assume the survivor is lying or very confused” or “Assume the accused had a good reason to do what they did.”

How about giving the benefit of the doubt to the survivor?

Believe the survivor. Assume they are telling the truth unless there’s actually good evidence that they aren’t, because the vast majority of these types of accusations are not false. Assume that they are speaking out because they want safety and justice, not just because they want to “ruin” their abuser’s life or career.

Assume the survivor stayed with their abuser for as long as they did because abusers deliberately make it difficult or even impossible to leave, not because the survivor is somehow weak, stupid, or incompetent.

Assume the survivor was quite aware of the danger that they (and possibly their children) were in and doesn’t need to be patronizingly informed that staying with an abuser can be dangerous. So can trying to leave.

Assume the survivor is the best authority on their own experience.

2) Avoid speculation.

Whenever there’s a high-profile domestic abuse case, journalists and commenters alike love to speculate. Why did the abuser abuse? Why didn’t the survivor leave? What happened to either of them in their childhood that could’ve led to this? Why didn’t the survivor’s family help? Why would the survivor have been attracted to their abuser in the first place?

This amateur psychoanalysis is not useful. At best, it’s a distraction from the important questions: How do we help the survivor? How do we make sure this never happens again? At worst, it spreads misinformation and stereotypes. People especially enjoy speculating about what the survivor might have done to “provoke” the abuse. Did they cheat? Dress “inappropriately?” Say something mean?

Abuse cannot be “provoked.” Abusers know what they’re doing, and they do it intentionally. They may wait for something to happen that they can then attribute the abuse to, but that’s not the same as being “provoked.”

Read the rest here.

Correlation is Not Causation: STI Edition

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about a new study on STI rates among men who hook up with men using smartphone apps, and how easy it is to misinterpret the results.

new study by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and UCLA suggests that men who have sex with men and use hookup apps like Grindr are significantly more likely to have gonorrhea and chlamydia than men who have sex with men but do not use such apps. But before you panic and delete Grindr from your phone lest it give you an STI, let’s look at what the study does and does not actually show.

[...]Careless headline writers frequently mix up correlation and causation, spreading misinformation and stigma. Despite Lowder’s balanced take on the study, the headline of his own piece reads, rather alarmingly, “Study Suggests Grindr-Like Apps Increase Likelihood of Sexually Transmitted Infections.” This wording implies that using such apps increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting an STI, not that, in general, people who use such apps are also more likely to have an STI. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Another important distinction is whether the participants contracted the STIs during the course of the study (while using GSN apps) or just happened to have them at the time that the data was collected. Here Lowder’s article is also unclear: “Specifically, geo-social app users were 25 percent more likely than their bar hopping comrades to contract gonorrhea, and 37 percent more likely to have picked up chlamydia.” And an article about the study at Advocate is headlined, “STUDY: Smartphone Hookup App Users More Likely To Contract Sexually Transmitted Infections.”

However, the actual study notes that the participants were tested for STIs at the same time as they were asked about their sexual behavior, including the use of GSN apps. This means that they did not necessarily contract the STIs while using the GSN apps, or after having used them. The infections could have preceded the participants’ use of the apps.

This is important because it can help untangle the question of why this correlation exists, besides the obvious hypothesis that using GSN apps can actually cause people to contract STIs at higher rates than other ways of meeting sexual partners. Perhaps people who already have STIs are more interested in using the apps because of the anonymity—it’s much less scary to tell a random person you’ll never meet again that you have an STI and need to use a condom than it is to tell someone who’s embedded in your social network. Or, on the more cynical side of things, people might feel less guilty about not disclosing an STI to a random app hookup than someone they’ve met in a more conventional way.

Or, maybe people who are attracted to “wild” and “risky” sexual situations are more likely to have STIs and more likely to use GSN apps. The common factor could be impulsivity or recklessness.

Read the rest here.

[guest post] Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.


The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister [...] U is for underage, N is for no consent [...] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.

~~~

*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

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

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

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

What’s missing from this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they don’t really, really want it.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Further reading:

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

The Case Against Celebrity Gossip

Credit: jezebel.com

Celebrity gossip bothers me.

I think it’s both interesting and sad how we assume that accomplished, well-known people exist for our consumption. That is, we not only consume the work they produce; we consume their lives themselves.

We expect them to be perfect and demand apologies when they fail, but we also gleefully feed on the news of their failures, perhaps encouraging them to fail if they want to be noticed.

When celebrities fight back against the culture of gossip and paparazzi, as they often do, we claim that by being so famous and “putting themselves out there,” they “deserve” the stalking, the intrusion of privacy, the destructive rumors and exposés, all of it.

It is, if you think about it, a victim-blaming sort of mindset.

And so, things that are absolutely unacceptable and legally punishable when done to an “ordinary” private citizen are just a day in the life of a celebrity.

I understand and uneasily accept that as long as there’s a market for celebrity gossip, tabloids will continue to exist. I think the onus is more on the public to learn that violating people’s privacy is wrong than on tabloids to willingly shut themselves down. However, I do reserve a harsher judgment for media outlets that trade in celebrity gossip while simultaneously branding themselves as progressive–or, worse, feminist.

Jezebel is a blog that I read loyally because it often (not always) features great writing and brings things to my attention that I may not have learned about otherwise. I read it with the understanding that the writing is often unnecessarily snarky and dismissive (the pot calling the kettle black, I know), and that some of the posts are best fact-checked elsewhere.

I know this about Jezebel, and I accept it. What I have more difficulty accepting, though, is that the same site that provides women with vital information about terrible politicians, interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and summaries of important research…also publishes things like this. And this, and this, and even more disgustingly, this.

It’s fashionable these days to consume things “ironically”–pop music, bad television drama, Twilight and Fifty Shades. Celebrity gossip, too, falls into that category of things people like “ironically.” This, I think, is why you often see it on blogs like Jezebel. Perhaps people think that reading it alongside articles about institutionalized sexism somehow makes it better.

Some might disagree with this criticism of Jezebel because it does not explicitly label itself as a feminist blog. Perhaps that’s a fair point. However, whether or not it labels itself as such, it unquestionably has a feminist perspective, and more importantly, it’s ironic that some of the issues Jezebel criticizes in its more serious pieces–body snarking, fashion policing, slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and editors to cover celebrity gossip without feeling guilty.

But is it possible to consume celebrity gossip ethically? According to an article in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine, yes. The article, called “Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?”, was written by media scholar Anne Helen Petersen (and is, unfortunately, not available online). Petersen acknowledges the issues with celebrity gossip, such as the fact that it’s a form of social policing and prescribes the ways in which people (especially women) are allowed to be. She writes, “In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.”

But the question Petersen ultimately answers in her piece is not the one that is posed in the title. Celebrity gossip itself is not feminist. In fact, as Petersen points out, is it explicitly antifeminist. But the act of consuming celebrity gossip is a different matter entirely.

According to Petersen, we should consume celebrity gossip while acknowledging the problems with it, examining our own reactions to it, and keeping its historical context in mind. She provides a personal anecdote about learning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively were dating and feeling irrationally annoyed by it. However, instead of taking her reaction at face value, she examined it:

I don’t like that someone who “means” what DiCaprio means to me (the first heartthrob of my teenage years, Romeo + Juliet forever) is linked with someone who “means” what Lively does (inexperienced, inarticulate, lacking in talent). I can look at my reaction even more closely, understanding my frustration when handsome, talented, seemingly intelligent men my age persist in courting women far their junior who don’t seem to be their equals. Is my reaction necessarily fair? No. But unpacking my reaction to a romance between two celebrities helps me understand my own issues with men dating younger (beautiful, lovely-breasted) women. In short, mindfully consuming celebrity gossip helped me make sense of my own biases.

What I took away from this article is that there are ways to consume celebrity gossip intelligently and mindfully, while learning about ourselves and our society in the process.

However, merely reporting the gossip (and I use the term “reporting” loosely) is not the same thing at all.

I know the mental contortions that people who love celebrity gossip sometimes use to justify it. It’s just for fun. Not everything has to be all serious and political. I don’t support it financially, anyway. It would still exist even if I stopped consuming it. The celebs deserve it.

Not everything has to be all serious and political, but many of our choices do have serious and/or political ramifications. And I know it’s never pleasant to be confronted with the fact that something you love is problematic. I also know that most people who like celebrity gossip have little interest in consuming it the way that Petersen describes.

But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment. Sorry, but I do.

Why Do We Keep Talking About Akin and Not About Other Stuff?

I’ve noticed that every time a high-profile conservative says or does something stupid and it blows up in the media, some rank-and-file conservatives–in my Facebook newsfeed, elsewhere on the internet–have a very interesting response. They say something to the effect of this:

“Why are people talking about [insert stupid conservative here] so much more than about [insert Terrible Thing that also happened recently, such as a mass shooting]?”

They will ask if the former is “more important” than the latter, and wonder why people seem more willing to condemn a stupid politician than the perpetrator of a terrible act of violence. They will lament that the media seems to care more about bashing Republicans than about reporting “real news.” I saw this apples-and-oranges comparison being made between the Chick-Fil-A controversy and the Sikh temple shooting, and between Todd Akin and the FRC shooting.

This smacks to me of defensiveness and a certain type of persecution complex. What these people seem to be saying is this: “Yes, [high-profile conservative] said something stupid. But do you really have to talk about it so much? Why can’t you talk about this other important thing instead? Why can’t you just forget how stupid [high-profile conservative] is?”

There are a number of problems with this response:

1. Unless you’ve really done your research, you can’t really claim that the media is covering one subject more than another. Because how do you know? Many conservatives, I’ve noticed, seem to have a paranoid conviction that they are constantly being persecuted, denied their rights, and “attacked” by The Liberal Media (if you don’t believe me, go to the current affairs section of a bookstore and look at the titles of books written by prominent conservatives about the media). This means that their belief that certain subjects are being covered “more” in the media could simply be confirmation bias: you take note of all the news stories that deal with that subject and forget all the ones that deal with other subjects.

Now, I don’t mean to accuse conservatives of stupidity or of purposefully misrepresenting things. Confirmation bias is something we are all sometimes guilty of. But in this case, it might explain what’s going on.

2. “The Media” is not a monolith. What you see covered in it depends entirely on what media sources you’re consuming. For example, my Google Reader has a section called “News” and a section called “Social Justice.” (It also has many others, such as “Tech/Business,” “Science,” “Literature,” etc.) The “News” section is going to have more stories about mass shootings than about stupid things conservatives say about the female reproductive system. The “Social Justice” section will be the other way around–although it, too, will have many stories about mass shootings as they relate to societal inequality, the justice system, mental health, and so on.

Also, I have trouble believing that Fox News inadequately covered the FRC shooting and lent too much airtime to Todd Akin’s comments. I really, really have trouble believing that.

But in any case, I get a bit annoyed whenever I see anyone complaining about the mainstream media not covering adequately the issues that are important to them. If that’s the case, stop consuming mainstream media. Find the websites, blogs, magazines, and radio shows that provide the news you’re looking for and support them with your money. The “mainstream media” (whatever that even is these days) will gradually lose its clout.

That said, it could very well be that the media covers stuff like Todd Akin and Chick-Fil-A more than it covers mass shootings, and that’s not necessarily because of The Liberal Media.

Here are some reasons why that might be the case:

1. When there’s more disagreement on an issue, it gets talked about more. I think we can all agree that shootings are Bad, that shooters are violent criminals who should be brought to justice, that shootings should be prevented if possible, and so on. When people agree, there’s less to discuss.

(One caveat: people disagree very strongly on how to prevent shootings. If you somehow managed to miss all the recent discourse on mental health and violence, and on gun control, you’re living under a rock.)

But with something like the Chick-Fil-A controversy or Todd Akin’s comments, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Half of this country believes that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry, and nearly half believe that women should be denied the right to an abortion. Although not everyone in the latter group agrees with Akin’s ridiculous misunderstanding of human anatomy, many do. We have a lot to discuss, so the media jumps on board.

2. It is, after all, an election season. The Sikh temple shooter and the FRC shooter are not running for political office; Akin is. (Trust me, if Akin had a history of shooting up people he disagrees with, we’d be discussing him even more.) People want to know who to vote for, so media outlets cover candidates in detail.

3. Stories like Akin and Chick-Fil-A often contain much more nuance and relevant backstory than stories about mass shootings. When a mass shooting occurs, there are usually only three types of stories that you’ll see. There will be stories about what happened, what might have led the shooter to do what he did (usually membership in certain groups, mental health problems, etc.), and how to prevent future shootings (usually better mental healthcare and/or gun control). There may also be some stories about the victims of the shooting and how they’re coping.

With stories like Todd Akin, however, there’s just so much interesting and important material to dredge up. There were stories about the medieval origins of Akin’s beliefs, ways in which other politicians fail at science, reactions from other Republicans, about Akin’s “apology,” what happens if Akin drops outidiots who defended him (pretty sure nobody defended the FRC shooter, by the way), other relevant crap that Akin has done, reactions from doctors, and, of course, what “legitimate rape” actually is (watch that video, it’s funny).

See? Lots to talk about.

In general, I consider the “but why aren’t we talking about this instead” response to be a bit dishonest. People are talking about the other thing, first of all. And second, no, we will not brush these “gaffes” under the rug. Political gaffes are generally those rare moments when a politician says what he/she really thinks, and as such, they’re extremely important.

Leaving Medill

I knocked on the office door promptly at noon. She opened the door and said, “Can you just wait a few minutes? Our teleconference is running late.” I nodded. The door shut. I waited.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at a round table in a large, airy office full of plants. It had two windows, one of which faced my freshman year dorm.

“So, you’re thinking about transferring out of Medill?”

“Definitely transferring.” Her eyebrows go up. “I mean, I’m a junior, and I actually decided quite a while ago, so…”

“Can you tell me a little bit about your decision? I’m not trying to dissuade you.”

~~~

I remember all those nights. Clutching my camera or my notepad or both. Trying to find a way–any way–to escape the situation.

The worst time was when I was doing my final project for the last journalism class I ever took. I went to a gathering at my brother’s apartment–an event for young adults of Jewish/Russian descent. I had to interview people–not my brother, obviously. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself talk to anybody. My throat started closing up.

My brother’s apartment was on the sixteenth floor. Would that be high enough?

I ran outside and collapsed on a bench in a park, crying and trying to catch my breath. I felt ridiculous. The Medill School of Journalism had accepted just ten percent of its applicants the year I got in. There were nine other people who had desperately wanted my spot. And now I was bawling like an idiot because I had a terrible fear of talking to strangers.

They told me it gets easier with time, that you have to just make yourself do it. They said you would stop feeling self-conscious after a while. They explained how important it is to my future career that I learn to be pushy.

It never got easier. I always ended up gasping for breath and crying.

I don’t remember how I finished that project, but somehow I did. Not long after I started having weird neurological symptoms and became more or less numb to everything. I spent the summer at home, doing almost nothing. The one thing I accomplished was starting antidepressants to undo what being in Medill had, for whatever reason, done to me.

~~~

And today, two years later, I sat in her office and answered her question.

“It just wasn’t my thing,” I said.

~~~

Two years have passed, and I’m only now filling out this paperwork, going to this meeting, and making sure that the university knows whether to give me a BS in journalism or a BA in psychology.

Part of reason for the delay was my own laziness and lack of fondness for formalities like this, but another part of it was avoidance.

I hate going into the Medill buildings. Both of them. One is very new, all sleek and shiny, with high ceilings and plush chairs and new technology. The other is its opposite, old and creaky, with a rusty fire escape winding up the back. I once climbed all the way to the top of it and sat there late at night.

They’re both beautiful. I hate them both.

In these buildings I learned how to write a lede and use AP style. I learned how to use Adobe Flash and InDesign, Final Cut Pro, and Audacity. I learned how to shoot video and record audio. I learned how to harass people who didn’t want to answer my questions until they did it anyway.

Mostly, though, I learned what it feels like to fail.

I don’t mean what they call a “Medill F,” which is what happens when you make a factual error in a piece and receive a grade of 50%. That did happen to me, as it did to virtually everyone else.

But that’s not failure. That’s just screwing up. Failure is when your mind conspires against you and keeps you from doing something you desperately want to do.

I wanted to be a journalist, but I couldn’t stop the panic attacks that I got whenever I had to actually be one.

~~~

She signed my form and made sure I knew where to take it next.

“And know that we’re always here for you, even though you’re leaving. If you ever have any questions, I’m always happy to help–even you!” She smiled and I had to smile back.

She congratulated me again for my acceptance to the psychology honors program, and I thanked her kindly.

“Good luck, my dear,” she said.

And then, less than five minutes later, it was over. I left the building and I left Medill.

~~~

It’s been two years since I took a journalism class. My video camera, voice recorder, and microphone lie abandoned in my closet back home. I still use my tripod for my own photography.

My external hard drive died suddenly over a year ago, and with it died all the articles and projects I did. If there’s a heaven for vain attempts, that’s where they are.

My new chosen profession is similar to journalism in some ways. Both journalists and therapists do a certain amount of investigation and excavation. Both live and work by a code of ethics, and both must keep secrets. Therapists, like journalists, ask questions and listen and take notes.

But that’s basically where the similarities end. Therapists don’t get to attach their names to their successes. I don’t get to point out a person who came to me barely able to get through the day and now lives happily, and say, “This is my work.” They don’t award Pulitzers to therapists. If a therapist’s name is in the newspaper, it’s probably for something bad.

And yet. My freshman year, one of my journalism professors told me a story about something she saw as a young reporter. A horrific plane crash had just happened and many were injured or dead. She was assigned to cover the story and showed up at the local hospital along with all the other reporters. The hospital staff told the reporters that there was a special room for grieving friends and family and that they must not attempt to interview the people inside.

Then someone came out of the room and sat on the floor, next to the door, with her head in her hands. My professor couldn’t bring herself to do it, but another reporter walked right up and said, “So, who’d you lose?”

I retell this story whenever people ask me why I chose psychology over journalism. It illustrates so pointedly the differences between these professions. Journalists do important work, work without which our society couldn’t function. But their allegiance is to “the people,” who “need to know.” The allegiance of a therapist is always, always to her client.

~~~

But I won’t pretend that this is a happy choice. I’m glad to have found my calling in life, but when I tell people that I “chose” psychology instead of journalism, as I told you just now, I’m not really telling it like it is.

“Choosing” means picking one thing when you are equally free to do either.

I was never free to be a journalist, because my broken brain wouldn’t let me.

Maybe if I had been, I would still have chosen psychology. Maybe not. Either way, now I’ll never know.

Most of us were raised with the idea that we can be whatever we want to be. Well, maybe that isn’t always true.