How Young Girls Internalize Rape Culture as “Normal”

[Content note: sexual assault and harassment]

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about a study showing how normalized sexual violence is for young women:

They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean…I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.

This is how a 13-year-old girl described being groped by boys at school in a recently published study from Marquette University. Researcher Heather Hlavka examined recordings of interviews with girls who had experienced sexual assault and found that many of the girls consistently tried to minimize their experiences of sexual assault and harassment by claiming that it’s “just what guys do,” “just a joke,” or “no big deal.”

Sexual violence against women is so tragically normal, it seems, that girls grow up expecting it to happen or at least not being very surprised when it does.

Meanwhile, on the internet, a veteran of the comics industry who also happens to be a woman wrote a critique of a comic cover that she found objectifying and gross: specifically, it featured 16- or 17-year-old Wonder Girl with huge, clearly-fake boobs. Predictably, she received numerous death and rape threats online for daring to do this.

Dr. Nerdlove, a blogger who normally dispenses dating advice to (mostly male) geeks, wrote a blog post in response, saying:

Here’s the thing though: this isn’t about whether or not Asselin is legitimately afraid for her personal safety—while not ignoring that these are threats from people who know what she looks like, where she works and where she lives—or if these threats are at all credible. It’s about the fact that this is so common place, that women get so many threats that it stops bothering them.

I want to reiterate that so that it sinks in: women getting so many anonymous, sexually violent threats that it just becomes normal to them.

This is what we’re letting our culture turn into, people.

These two seemingly different examples have a common thread: women viewing sexual violence and threats of it as normal.

When women speak out against sexual violence and harassment, a common response from men is that other women seem fine with it. Other women take it as a compliment. Occasionally a woman or two will join the debate on their side, testifying to the fact that they don’t see anything wrong with catcalling or pressuring someone to have sex with you.

But studies like these show that even from a very young age, many women accept threatening, coercive, and even violent behavior from men because they don’t think anything else is possible. That’s “just how men are.” It’s “no big deal.”

Read the rest here.

Rejoice! The NYT Finally Published a Pretty Good Article About Sexuality

The New York Times has an article about the effects of pornography on teenagers, and it’s actually such a well-written piece that I got really excited and wanted to share it with you. This happens very rarely with the NYT‘s reporting on sexuality.

The article is mostly about research on teens and porn and includes lots of quotes from actual researchers. Amazingly, there are no quotes from fearmongering religious leaders or politicians to provide “balance.” (I will be very very happy if that particular proud journalistic tradition is finally going the way of independent print media [ugh]).

Since it’s presumably written for the lay public, the article could be a little clearer about the correlation-vs-causation problem, but this paragraph sums up the problems with this type of research pretty well:

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, “causal relationships” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

This, I think, is actually not entirely fair. A better analogy would be if a study found that arsonists drive at a significantly higher rate than non-arsonists, which still wouldn’t be enough to show that cars cause arson. An alternate explanation could be that people who commit arson have a greater need than other people to be able to get around quickly on their own, perhaps in order to escape a crime scene, so they are more likely to have cars and to drive.

When it comes to sex and porn, it’s more likely that a particular type of teen (say, one who has a high sex drive or is just really curious about sex) is more likely to both watch porn and to engage in risky sexual behavior, not that watching porn causes the risky sexual behavior.

This study also demonstrates the same issue:

Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Mr. Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that “when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all.”

This correlation is not at all surprising. People who are dissatisfied with their sex lives (whether because they’re not having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t great) are probably more likely to watch porn because it’s a way to vicariously experience what they don’t have the opportunity to experience. Whereas people who are sexually experienced may be more satisfied with their sex lives, and those of them who watch porn may be doing it for other reasons.

However, some of the studies discussed in the article seem flawed enough so as to actually show very little:

If academia can’t shed a great deal of light on this issue, perhaps teenagers can. Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers — ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys — were divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” says Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. There were more giggles than arguments. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Of course “the pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder,” as these sorts of messages about the effects of pornography are so pervasive and emotional in the media that it’s no wonder teens would pick them up and parrot them. It could even be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re told porn will damage your body image, and so it does. But that’s not to discount the possibility that it really does; that’s just to say that this study is a rather poor way of demonstrating that.

It’s also important to note that these teens were told what to argue, and that it’s basically impossible to argue that something hasn’t affected you. All you can really say is “Well uh it hasn’t affected me.” To argue that something has affected you, you just have to list all the ways, hypothetical or otherwise.

This part of the article stuck out to me as a little odd:

“I have a son,” says Professor Reid of U.C.L.A., “and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex — that all women have insatiable sexual appetites, for example.”

I think it’s fair and reasonable not to want your children to learn about sex through porn, but Reid’s specific concern seems strange. If anything, mainstream porn probably suggests that women are less interested in sex than they really are, or that their “insatiable sexual appetites” are limited to specific sexual acts that straight men happen to enjoy. I would actually much rather a teenage boy believe that women generally like sex than believe the common cultural script, which is that women don’t really like sex and need to be cajoled and coerced into it, or they do it to entrap men into relationships.

The article also notes the difficulty of operationalizing variables when it comes to research on pornography. What exactly is porn? What is harm? And here’s where we run into some issues.

American research on teenage sexuality tends to define a number of things as “bad”: starting to have sex at a young age, having sex a lot, having sex with many different partners, having sex casually, having unprotected sex. These are the sorts of factors researchers tend to look at when they examine things like the efficacy of sex education and the effects of porn on teenagers. While the latter item is something we should rightfully be concerned about because it directly leads to negative health consequences, the other ones are more a reflection of how our culture views teenage sexuality (and sexuality in general) than anything else.

In general, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tend to believe that it’s best to start having sex later rather than sooner, to be less sexually active rather than more so, to have fewer partners rather than more, and to have sex in more “serious” relationships rather than more “casual” ones. So when someone conducts a study that purports to show that teens who watch porn have more sexual partners or have more sex in general, that’s only supposed to be “troubling” because our culture has constructed it that way.

What is hardly ever talked about when we talk about “negative sexual consequences” of this or that? Being in an abusive relationship. Violating someone else’s consent. Not being aware of what consent even is. Not feeling comfortable talking about sex with one’s partners. Having judgmental and shaming attitudes about others’ sexual choices. Feeling judged or shamed for your own sexual preferences or gender identity. Believing that some types of people exist for your sexual gratification and objectification. Believing that there are things that others can do to “deserve” abuse.

If watching porn increases the likelihood that teens experience or believe these things, I want to know, because that’s a lot more concerning to me than someone losing their virginity (itself a mostly-bullshit concept) at 16 rather than 17.

“Porn,” too, is a vast category of films and videos that encompasses everything from homemade tapes by couples looking to make some cash or get off on being watched, to huge professional productions that employ well-known actors and make a profit. I’d have to, er, go deep into the methods sections of these papers to see what they mean by “porn” (if they bother to define it), but a lot of this research begins from the premise that things like multiple simultaneous orgasms, 8-inch dicks, and inhuman flexibility are necessarily features of porn. Of some porn, sure. Maybe not of the porn most teens watch. Who knows, unless we actually research it?

My favorite part of the article is the end:

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath continued. “If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea, as unnerving to both sides as that may sound. The alternative is worse, according to Professor Reid. Putting a computer in a kid’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, he said, is a bit like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”

Something that’s always struck me about discussions of porn and teens is the hypocrisy of adults complaining that teens are learning about sex through porn…while not suggesting any better ways for them to learn about sex. The common solution seems to be “ignore the problem and hope it goes away” or “pretend that if teens don’t know much about sex they will not have sex until they get married at which point they will magically immediately have a pleasurable, fulfilling, mutually consensual sex life.”

Of course teens seek out porn to learn about sex. Their sex ed programs either yell at them that they’ll get pregnant and die if they have sex, or they awkwardly have them learn to use condoms and name all the parts of the reproductive system, all without any mention of the central reason humans have sex to begin with: pleasure. They are discouraged from learning how to masturbate if they don’t already know how, so even that avenue to sexual pleasure is closed off to many teens, or else filled with shame and fear. Porn, for all its faults, is a wonderful way to see for yourself what sex might be like.

If porn is a bad way to teach teens about sex, then they need a better way. And that way must include discussion of the positives of sex as well as the negatives.

Some Evidence Against Shame and Stigma as Weight Loss Motivators

[Content note: weight/size stigma and discrimination]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I’m the REAL Skeptic”: On Begging the Question

Things you need to stop doing in debates: framing your position as “rational/skeptical” and the opposing position as not “rational/skeptical.” What I’m talking about specifically are rhetorical moves like these: “Some hysterical people think sexual harassment is a huge problem, but I’m going to be rational about this.” or “I’m an actual skeptic, so I’m not going to whine about some so-called ‘rape culture.'”

Of course, some positions are truly anti-skeptical and/or irrational, but in that case, you can show why they’re not with evidence. For instance! “Anti-vax is an irrational position because all the evidence shows that vaccines are really useful, and no credible study shows that vaccines cause autism.” Or! “It’s not very skeptical to say that mental illnesses are just made up by Big Pharma. Have you spoken with people who have mental illness? Have you researched its neuropsychological correlates?”

But it’s not sufficient just to say something like, “I’m a Real Skeptic so I believe X.” or “You only think Y because you’re being irrational.”

First of all, even assuming for a moment that you, personally, are thinking rationally/skeptically, the fact that your opponent disagrees with you does not necessarily prove that they are not thinking rationally/skeptically. Shockingly enough, rationality and skepticism, when applied to the same issue, can still lead to wildly different conclusions! Some people have studied the evidence and think religion is good for mental health in general. Other people have studied the evidence and think religion is bad for mental health in general, or that its good effects are moderated too much by other factors. Some people have studied the evidence and think that it depends. All of these positions may be products of rational thinking. However, one or more of them may still be wrong, because rationality is not a panacea. It’s just a useful process that often produces good results.

Second, by painting yourself as a True Skeptic/Rationalist and your opponent as a hysterical over-sensitive irrational whiner, you’re engaging in a cheap rhetorical ploy that doesn’t actually 1) prove your point or 2) falsify your opponent’s point. It simply attempts to curry favor to your side through the use of buzzwords like rationality and skepticism.

What you are doing, oh person who probably loves to bloviate about logical fallacies, is begging the question. “I am a rationalist and you are not because my position is right and yours is wrong. My position is right and yours is wrong because I am being rational and you are not.”

Somewhere within whatever issue you’re attempting to needlessly obfuscate lie falsifiable claims that you’re simply ignoring. For instance, if rape culture does not exist, you would not expect rape to be treated more leniently than other crimes. But it is. If rape culture does exist, you might expect rape victims to be blamed for their rapes more frequently than other crime victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, and they are. If rape culture does not exist, you might not expect people to feel sorry for rapists who have their “lives ruined” by being accurately accused of rape, but they do. If rape culture does not exist, you might expect all rapes to be treated as equally “legitimate,” but they are not. The point is not which of us is being “rational” about this and which of us is a “True Skeptic.” The point is, in which direction does the evidence generally go?

And when scientific evidence has not been accumulated yet, there are still ways in which you can think rationally about the issue. Someone yesterday demanded me to find them statistics on the frequency with which white people touch the hair of people of color without their permission. First of all, if you expect such a study to come out of an American research university, you simply don’t understand how underrepresented people of color are as university faculty, and how unlikely white people are to just spontaneously choose to study an issue such as this (although perhaps it’s happened, I’m not a human research database). Second, riddle me this: if it is not the case that white people frequently touch the hair of people of color without their permission, why does basically every person of color say that this has happened to them? Why have many of them written blog posts and articles about this? Do you think people of color just got together in some secret cabal to plan a conspiracy in which they accuse white people of constantly touching their hair without permission? If so, what motivation do they have for doing this? You’re a Skeptic/Rationalist, aren’t you? By all means, propose an alternative hypothesis to explain this!

Calling yourself skeptical/rational is not enough to make you so. Calling your opponent anti-skeptical/irrational is also not enough to make them so.

P.S. This is only tangentially related, but if you’re a man arguing with a woman and you’re leaping to call her “hysterical” and “irrational,” pause for a moment and consider the historical and cultural implications of this.

Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

[Content note: racism]

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, conservatives have once again embarrassed themselves by attempting to “prove” with “science” that people of color are stupider than white people. Yup, again.

You’ve probably read this story elsewhere so I’ll make my recap brief: It has come to light that Jason Richwine (I’m not making this name up, folks), the lead author of a study on immigration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote his 2009 PhD dissertation on…why Hispanics are genetically stupider than whites and will therefore continue to have children who are stupider than whites:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — ‘the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ’ — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, ‘No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

In case you’re wondering at which podunk school Richwine wrote such a dissertation, well, it was Harvard.

(Awkwardly, the very next day after WaPo broke this story, a Pew Research Center report was released that showed that Hispanic students’ rate of college enrollment is now greater than whites’. LOLZ. [However, note that Hispanic =/= Latino.])

Why are conservatives so goddamn obsessed with trying to “prove” that people of color are stupid? Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a great analysis:

These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.

One mistake that all of these people make–aside from the glaring one of being racist, that is–is that they treat the distinction between “IQ” and “intelligence” as completely irrelevant. Scrupulous research psychologists are quick to acknowledge that the measures they use are imperfect and can only provide an approximation of the actual abstractions they are trying to assess. So if you score higher on a scale of depression, we don’t say you are “more depressed”; we say that you “scored higher on the Such-and-Such Depression Scale.” If you score higher on a scale of extroversion, we don’t say that you are “more extroverted”; we say that you “scored higher on the Blah-Blah-Blah Extroversion-Introversion Scale.” At least, that’s what careful, conscientious psychologists do.

Many believe that intelligence is a much more concrete (and therefore measurable) quality than extroversion or how depressed you are. They may be right; I’m not a cognitive psychologist so this is not my specialty. However, serious criticism of IQ as a measure of intelligence has been made–and by “Real Scientists,” too, not just by Bleeding-Heart-Tree-Hugging-I’m-Mixing-Metaphors Liberals. And in terms of race, some researchers have suggested that IQ tests are biased against Mexican Americans because the tests contain “cultural influences” that reduce the validity of the test when assessing these students’ cognitive ability.

Back to Beauchamp’s analysis of conservatives and why they’re so obsessed with race and IQ:

This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.

Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? People of color are disproportionately likely to be poor compared to white people. People of color are stupider than white people. Ergo, there’s no need to try to alleviate poverty and economic inequality because it’s natural.

Hopefully you noticed the big honkin’ naturalistic fallacy in that argument. Even if it’s natural for people of color to be poor (because they’re stupid and therefore can’t get off the couch and get a job), that doesn’t mean that this is a good way for society to be. It does not follow that we should just allow things to continue this way.

The other big flaw is that these conservatives are also succumbing–as, to be fair, most people do–to the notion that people with higher IQs/more intelligence are inherently better than people with lower IQs/less intelligence. It is okay that people with little intelligence should struggle just to get by, should be unable to give their children a better life (whether those children have low IQs or not), should be unable to afford basic healthcare, should have to eat cheap, unhealthy food, should have to choose between dangerous, dehumanizing, low-pay work (or none at all) and breaking the law to make money, should have to live as second-class citizens. All because they are “less intelligent,” which is supposedly mostly genetic and therefore not something they chose.

I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument, also ask why it is that intelligence should determine whether or not you have access to food, shelter, and healthcare.

There are, of course, many other important things to discuss here. We could talk about how there are so many different types of intelligence and IQ tests only measure a certain type. We could talk about how growing up in poverty drastically reduces one’s opportunities for intellectual enrichment and growth. We could talk about how you don’t necessarily need to be “smart” to contribute to society; we do need service-sector workers and types of unskilled laborers and they should be able to live on what they make, too.

But I think we need to talk about this idea that having a lot of “intelligence” (whatever that even means) makes you better than those who do not have a lot of it. So much better, in fact, those without sufficient “intelligence” do not deserve to live above the poverty line.


Edit: Not quite related to the main point of this article, but the conservative response to this controversy and Richwine’s subsequent firing/resignation from the Heritage Foundation is veeery interesting. I won’t link to any because you can Google it yourself, but it’s all about Richwine’s “crucifixion” and how liberals are trying to “destroy” him and so on.

Conservatives have this interesting theory in which, when someone does something wrong, it is the fault of the person who calls attention to it that the wrong-doer experiences negative consequences. It’s not that Richwine did something wrong, it’s that the meanie liberals are trying to destroy him. Similarly, when someone accuses someone–say, up-and-coming football players–of sexual assault, many conservatives accuse the victims of “ruining” their rapists’ lives by bringing what they did to light.

The fact that people’s reputation suffers when they do something terrifically stupid or harmful is not a bad thing. That is, indeed, society working as it should. It is a feature, not a bug.

Does Sexist Humor Matter? A Review of the Research

[Content note: sexual assault]

When people call out sexist humor, they’re often informed that “it’s just a joke.” While some seem to believe that humor inhabits a special dimension of the universe in which things don’t “really mean” anything, psychologists tend to disagree.

There are many, many reasons sexist humor matters. It hurts people, first of all. Beyond that, it may activate stereotype threat or generally make women feel unwelcome in spaces dominated by men. But it can also have effects on those who consume and enjoy it. Here, I’m going to examine one particular piece of that puzzle: sexist humor and men’s attitudes toward sexual violence.

An early study examined men’s enjoyment of sexist jokes and found a correlation between how funny they found the jokes and the degree to which they accepted myths about rape (such as that women lie about rape or that some women deserve to be raped), how likely they claimed to be to rape someone, and all sorts of measures of aggression (Ryan & Kanjorski, 1998). Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.

If you’re curious about the types of jokes used in the study, here are a few examples: “Why did the woman cross the road?–Hey!! What’s she doing out of the kitchen?” “What’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?–A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you.” “What’s the difference between a woman and a light bulb?–You can unscrew the light bulb.”

Ha, ha, ha.

So anyway, that was a correlative study. It provides no evidence that sexist humor causes men to become more likely to rape someone or to accept rape myths to a greater extent.

So that’s useless, right? Not really. Women/feminists who dislike sexist jokes often claim that it’s evidence that the person who’s telling them is a sexist, to which they’re told that “IT’S JUST A JOKE GOD STOP BEING SO SERIOUS.” However, whether or not one causes the other, there’s good evidence that they tend to co-occur. (For you stats nerds, the correlation between enjoyment of sexist humor and acceptance of rape myths was .39, p<.01).

Later studies expanded upon the work of Ryan and Kanjorski both theoretically and methodologically. In their 2007 study, Viki et al. cited what’s known as Prejudicial Norm Theory to explain the possible effects of sexist humor:

Prejudiced Norm Theory (Ford & Ferguson, 2004) argues that prejudiced jokes activate a conversational rule of levity, resulting in a non-serious mindset on the part of the receiver, which prevents the message from being interpreted critically. By switching to a non-serious mindset, the recipient of the joke essentially accepts the local norm implied by the joke. As such, when exposed to prejudiced jokes people may begin to accept the norm of prejudice implied by the joke. This may result in greater personal tolerance of discrimination.

The authors then cite a bunch of fascinating studies on the effects of sexist humor on men’s tolerance of sexism in general, to which I may return in a later post. But the gist of that is that being exposed to sexist humor may make men more likely to accept sexist behavior, such as harassment, especially for men who score high on measures of hostile sexism. Remember when I talked about myths about man-hating feminists and discussed the distinction between hostile and benevolent sexism? That comes up again and again in these sorts of studies.

So, returning to Prejudiced Norm Theory. If prejudiced jokes can cause people to accept–to however marginally greater a degree–actual prejudice, what does this mean with regards to sexual assault and the various biases, such as victim-blaming, that go along with it?

That’s what Viki et al. examined experimentally. Male students were randomly assigned to either read a few sexist jokes or a few non-sexist jokes. They then read one of two vignettes–one in which a woman is raped after going home from a party with a man she met there, and another in which a woman is raped by a stranger while walking home alone at night. The participants then answered a bunch of questions about the extent to which they blame the woman for what happened, how likely they might be to act the same way as the man in the vignette (rape proclivity), how much they think the woman ended up enjoying the situation, and, finally, how long the jail sentence should be for the man if he were found guilty of rape.

To summarize, it was a 2 x 2 design; each participant was assigned to one of four conditions: sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette, non-sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, or non-sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette.

The results were, to put it mildly, interesting. Rape proclivity was about the same for the stranger rape conditions; there was no significant difference between the self-reported rape proclivity of the participants who read the sexist jokes and the ones who read the non-sexist jokes.

But for the acquaintance rape condition, the participants who read sexist jokes reported a significantly higher proclivity to rape.

The same effect happened for victim-blaming. In the acquaintance rape condition, participants who read sexist jokes were significantly more likely to blame the woman in the vignette for her own rape. In the stranger rape condition, there was no significant difference. And likewise for recommended sentence length: participants in the sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition recommended a shorter jail sentence than those in the non-sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition.

Predictably, in general, rape proclivity and victim-blaming were both higher in the acquaintance rape conditions than in the stranger rape conditions.

In a later study, Romero-Sánchez et al. (2010) replicated these results and added two additional variables: ambivalent sexism and aversiveness of sexist humor. This second measure was meant to examine the degree to which the participants found the sexist jokes aversive–didn’t like them. The researchers hypothesized that aversiveness would be a moderating variable–men who found the jokes very aversive wouldn’t differ in rape proclivity regardless of what type of jokes they read, because reading sexist jokes wouldn’t increase their rape proclivity scores.

They were right. In fact, people with high aversiveness to sexist humor actually seemed to report a slightly lower proclivity to rape in the sexist joke condition, although it’s unclear whether or not this effect reached significance. The researchers also examined hostile sexism as a variable. They found that while participants high in hostile sexism reported greater rape proclivity overall, there was no interaction between hostile sexism scores and type of joke.

So, what does this mean? First, a cautionary note about self-reported rape proclivity. These measures typically ask participants how likely they would be to behave like the person in the vignette–that is, to rape someone–assuming they could get away with it. In reality, they may not be willing to take that chance. They may also find that despite their intention to rape someone, in reality, they may not be able to go through with it. They may also be responding in a biased way, assuming perhaps that the experimenter shares their beliefs and wanting to conform to what they perceive to be the norm. The authors of all of these studies are careful to state that they do not wish to imply that exposure to sexist humor necessarily causes sexual assault. Of course, it may, but no ethical study could possibly determine that for certain.

It’s important to note, too, that many rapists rape because they believe they can get away with it. In this sense, rape as a crime is not like murder or theft. With murder or theft, everyone generally knows that if there’s enough evidence to show that the suspect is guilty, then they will be convicted. With rape, many people realize that even clearly-guilty suspects often go free because the defense was able to discredit the victim somehow. So the hypothetical “Would you do it if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” question might not be entirely hypothetical.

So, again, these studies do not show that being exposed to and/or enjoying sexist humor makes men rape people. They do suggest, though, that sexist humor may cause men to be more accepting of rape, to blame the victim more, and to treat rape as a crime less seriously by assigning a shorter jail sentence to a hypothetical rapist. They also show that, in general, enjoyment of such humor is correlated with acceptance of rape myths and endorsement of hostile sexism, or misogyny, and that men who have a strong distaste for such humor may not experience these effects. Finally, they show that it’s not stranger rape we should be worried about when it comes to sexist humor–it’s beliefs about acquaintance rape that seem to be affected, and people are more likely to blame the victim in these situations as is. These are also the majority of rapes.

To put it simply, reading and enjoying sexist jokes can change how you think about certain things–perhaps without you even realizing it. This is far from a novel concept in social psychology, but many people seem to have trouble accepting it when it comes to pesky stuff like sexism. Do all those sexist jokes you hear all over the place–on TV, in your office, from your friends at a party–really matter? It appears so.

An interesting future study might include some sort of behavioral component, perhaps assessing a male participant’s response to a female confederate who discloses having been sexually assaulted. That sexist jokes affect attitudes may seem like common sense, but if a study could ethically show that they also affect behavior, that would have even more important implications. A neurological component might be interesting, too. Do people show a different neural response while reading a vignette about sexual assault if they’ve been reading sexist jokes versus non-sexist jokes? I’m not a neuroscientist, so I have no fucking idea, but it’s interesting to think about.

As last time, let me know if you have any specific questions about these papers, since only one of them is freely available as a PDF. Also let me know if any of the psych/stats jargon was incomprehensible and I’ll try to make it less so. :)

Romero-Sánchez, M., Durán, M., Carretero-Dios, H., Megías, J. L., & Moya, M. (2010). Exposure to sexist humor and rape proclivity: The moderator effect of aversiveness ratings. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(12), 2339–50. doi:10.1177/0886260509354884

Ryan, K., & Kanjorski, J. (1998). The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles, 38(9-10), 743-756. Retrieved from

Viki, G., Thomae, M., Cullen, A., & Fernandez, H. (2007). The effect of sexist humor and type of rape on men’s self-reported rape proclivity and victim blame. Current Research in Social Psychology, 13(10), 122–132. Retrieved from

Busting Myths About Feminism With SCIENCE!

Well, Monday’s April Fool’s joke left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was compelled to hurry up and write this post, which I’ve wanted to write for a while.

Feminist activists are invariably compelled to respond to silly, derailing claims about feminists’ supposed appearance, personalities, sex lives, attitudes towards men. You know the ones. Feminists are ugly. Feminists are angry and bitter. Feminists just hate men. Feminists just need a good lay.

These claims are extremely effective as derailing methods because they compel feminists to respond to these ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims (since they’re personal attacks, basically) rather than the important issues that actually matter.

There are several ways to respond to these comments. One is to simply ignore them. (I immediately delete all such comments from this blog because I don’t consider it productive or worth my time to respond to them.)

Another is to attempt to provide anecdotal evidence to the contrary–“Actually, I’m in a happy relationship with a man.” “Actually, I do shave my legs.” This might be the inspiration for those “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts and stickers. This response is tempting–it was a personal attack, after all–but I don’t think it’s ultimately effective. It’s too easy for the derailer to claim you’re lying or that you’re an exception, and besides, the entire conversation has now been shifted to what they want to discuss–your attractiveness or lack thereof.

A third response is to question the question the assumptions latent in the claim. Who cares if we’re not as “attractive”? So what if feminists don’t shave their legs? Is that a problem? I think this is a more effective response than the previous one because it forces the derailer to justify their claims. However, it may also promote inaccurate stereotypes because, well, it sounds like a concession.

The fourth response is my favorite: “Citations or GTFO.” Tell them to prove it. And for good measure, you can cite evidence yourself, because thanks to science, there’s good reason to believe that the crap people say about feminists is simply false. Let’s examine two papers.

Paper 1: Do feminists hate men?!

Did you know that there’s a psychological measure called the Ambivalence toward Men Inventory (AMI)? Well, now you do. Anderson, Kanner, and Elsayegh (2009) administered it to a sample of nearly 500 college students to see if there’s any truth to the constantly-trotted-out stereotype that feminists hate men.

First, a quick background on the types of sexism being studied. Although many people believe that sexism necessarily involves hostile attitudes (i.e. “Women are vain and shallow”; “Men suck at understanding feelings”), attitudes like these are just one component of sexism. The other is benevolent sexism, which may seem positive based on its name, but really isn’t. Benevolent attitudes is stuff like, “Women need men to protect them,” and “Men need women to take care of them in the home.” The AMI is designed to measure both components, HM (hostility toward men) and BM (benevolence toward men). Keep in mind, again, that “benevolence toward men” doesn’t necessarily mean liking men. It means holding attitudes toward men that seem kind or affectionate on the surface, but actually support traditional gender roles. Finally, ambivalent sexism is the concurrent support for both of these seemingly contradictory sets of beliefs.

So, the participants in the study were a large, ethnically diverse sample of college students. The majority (66%) were women. The participants completed the AMI and were then asked to define feminism and state whether or not they considered themselves feminists (“unsure” was also an option). Those participants who provided a definition of feminism that did not include “any reference to equal rights for women, the acknowledgement of inequality between women and men, [or] the need for social change on behalf of women” were excluded from the main analysis of the study. (For instance, a few people defined feminism strictly as being “ladylike” or “hating men,” without any reference to gender equality. I presume that the researchers assumed that these participants simply didn’t know what feminism is and should therefore be excluded from the analysis.)

In general, men reported more BM than women, and women reported more HM than men. This is consistent with earlier research. But when it came to feminists specifically–you already know where this is going, right?–feminists scored less on hostility toward men than did non-feminists. And it’s not because of the feminist guys in the sample, either: “The presence of feminist men alone cannot explain the relatively low levels of hostility toward men in the Feminist category because there was no significant Gender × Feminist Identification interaction on hostility toward men.”

So, not only do feminists not “hate men” any more than non-feminists do; in fact, they hate them less.

Caveats about this study:

  • It turned out that a relatively small percentage of the sample identified as feminist (14%). This, combined with the fact that many people gave shoddy definitions of feminism, caused the researchers to collapse the ethnic categories into just two: white people and people of color. Obviously, this is not ideal.
  • On a related note, because the sample was so diverse (83% of the final sample were people of color), it’s also important to note that, historically, feminism has been a white, middle-class movement. People of color are therefore less likely to identify with it, and that might be why there were so few self-identified feminists in this sample.
  • Also, the participants were all college students. That brings with itself all sorts of problems with generalizing to a larger population, but also, the researchers suggest that younger people are less likely to identify as feminists, so there’s also that.

There are many reasons why the stereotype of feminists as man-haters might persist. First of all, as both this paper and the next one note, there has been a concerted effort to discredit feminism in the media and in the political arena. Second–and this is just a personal thought–I think many people, especially men, have a serious misunderstanding of what the term “patriarchy” means. It does not mean “men are bad and evil and want to oppress women.” It means, “a societal system that, in general, privileges men over women.” Both men and women, of course, are complicit in this system, and that doesn’t mean that men as a group intentionally make it so. (Although some probably do.)

But men hear feminists talking about patriarchy and think that it’s secret feminist-speak for MEN ARE BAD AND EVIL AND I HATE THEIR PENISES and so the stereotypes persist.

Paper 2: Do feminists have crappy relationships?!

Noting that “past research suggests that women and men alike perceive feminism and romance to be in conflict,” Rudman and Phelan (2007) set out to address this question by surveying both college undergraduates and older adults about their romantic relationships. In the first study, they used several hundred heterosexual undergraduates, both male and female, who were currently in a relationship, about the extent to which they and their partners are feminists and how favorably both they and their partners view feminists. The participants also completed a 12-item questionnaire that assessed the health of their relationships; two example questions are “How often do you and your partner laugh together?” and “Do you confide your deepest feelings to your mate?” For each item, participants responded using a 6-point scale. (By the way, since I have access to the full paper and you probably don’t, feel free to ask for details, such as what all 12 questions were, in the comments if you’re curious. I didn’t want to bog down the post with details like that.)

Predictably, women were on average more feminist than men, and the extent to which participants reported that their partners are feminists correlated with their own level of feminism. Overall, there was no correlation, positive or negative, between participants’ feminism and the quality of their relationship. However, women who reported that their male partners were feminists seemed to have better-quality relationships. The authors note, “Because self and partner’s feminism were strongly related, feminism may indirectly promote relationship health, through the selection of like-minded partners.”

Meanwhile, although men who were dating feminists reported more disagreement about issues of equality in the relationship, feminist men reported less disagreement about such issues. It’s important to note, though, that there was still no significant correlation overall between a person’s feminism and the quality of their relationship (as measured by the questionnaire).

In their second study, Rudman and Phelan employed an online survey of older adults, theorizing that perhaps people who grew up during the second wave of feminism would have a different take on relationships, or that older adults would have become jaded in their relationships. They replicated the first study almost exactly, but they added a few questions to the relationship questionnaire, including several about sexual satisfaction. Again, women’s feminism was not related to their relationship health, but their partner’s feminism was positively correlated with relationship health, including the new measures on sexual satisfaction.

To make a long story short, here are Rudman and Phelan’s conclusions:

  1. There was no evidence that, for women, being a feminist is incompatible with being in a romantic relationship (with a man).
  2. The greater the extent to which women reported that their male partners are feminists, the greater their reported relationship satisfaction.
  3. For men, both being a feminist and having a feminist female partner was correlated positively with certain measures of relationship quality.

Now, some caveats:

  • As always with self-report measures, bias may be an issue. Many people may feel a certain amount of pressure to respond positively about their partners and relationships. However, I can’t think of a compelling reason why feminists would feel this pressure more than non-feminists, especially in light of the stereotype that feminists just want to complain about stuff.
  • This doesn’t mean that being a feminist makes your relationships better, or that having a feminist partner makes them better. It could just mean that people tend to select partners who resemble them in various ways, including politically, and that this leads to better relationships. But even then, the stereotype that feminists suck at dating is given no support by this research.
  • One limitation is that the study had participants report their perceptions of their partners’ level of feminism. A better design would be bringing both partners into the lab and having them report their own level of feminism (as well as that of their partner, perhaps, to see if there are disagreements). If you’re dating someone with whom you disagree strongly, you may feel tempted to minimize those differences in your mind in order to alleviate the cognitive dissonance that can result from being very close to someone with whom you disagree strongly.

The researchers conclude:

The fact that feminists are unfairly stereotyped suggests a political motive underlying negative beliefs. Whenever women challenge male dominance, they are likely to be targeted for abuse, and particularly along sexual dimen- sions, perhaps to discourage other women from embracing feminism and collective power (Faludi 1991). Because this strategy appears to be effective (Rudman and Fairchild 2007), it will be important for future research to examine whether educating people might alleviate their concerns that the Women’s Movement has disrupted heterosexual relations. Far from supporting beliefs that feminism and romance are “oil and water,” we found that having a feminist partner was healthy for both women’sand men’s intimate relationships. Contrary to popular beliefs, feminism may improve the quality of relationships, as opposed to undermining them.

Here’s my take on feminism and compatibility between partners: if there’s something you really really dislike about your partner’s political views (or any other kind of views), you may have trouble making a relationship work. That’s just the reality. Blaming this on your partner’s views may be tempting, but it also sort of misses the point. We all have qualities we look for in a partner, some of which are absolutely necessary while others are not. I could never date a conservative or an anti-feminist, but I don’t claim that this is because conservatives and anti-feminists are undateable or can’t be good partners. It’s just because I don’t want to date them.

Similarly, if you hate feminism, don’t date a feminist. Every non-feminist guy I’ve met has a story about That One Meanie Feminist Who Got All Pissy When He Tried To Pay For Her Dinner Like A Real Man, and while I clearly make fun of these guys, I also sympathize with how uncomfortable and frustrating it is to try to date someone whose worldview just keeps clashing with yours in every conceivable way.

So don’t do it. Someone who’s better for you will come along.

And all of us feminists can just happily date each other.

Oh, and while we’re talking about myths, here’s an easy one to bust that requires no research papers. It’s amazing, by the way, how many self-described skeptics just adore Snopes but have never managed to find their way to this page.


Anderson, K., Kanner, M., & Elsayegh, N. (2009). Are feminists man haters? Feminists’ and nonfeminists’ attitudes toward men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 216–224. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01491.x

Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2007). The interpersonal power of feminism: Is feminism good for romantic relationships? Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 787–799. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9319-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More On Depression Origins and Parenting

Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.

“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.

“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”

And here’s what I said:

Hey there,

Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:

Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?

Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.

Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.

Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.

If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!

Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?

No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:

Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?

She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.

If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.

What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.

Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.

Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?

These things matter.

Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.

I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.

[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.