[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Chet Hanks, Victim Blaming, and the "Weakness" of Suicide

Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks and a student here at Northwestern, has this to say about victims of bullying:

Chet's tweet: "Ayo I don't condone bullying but anyone who offs themselves cuz they got picked on is weak."

Credit: Gawker

And then, perhaps in response to people who responded to him (including yours truly), Chet tweeted these followups:

“I say real shit and I always speak my mind if you don’t like it I could give a fuck less.”

“Lol…Haters: I am sorry I do not cater to your demographic: shlubby dudes that don’t get laid enough it’s ok go back to your Internet porn”

“G’head check my feed, all the people hatin are mediocre Lames and cute girls show me love #whatdoesthattellyou

How mature.

Sometimes I wish someone would invent a technology that allows you to connect to someone else’s brain and actually feel what they feel. Because language is a poor substitute.

Maybe if we had such a technology, people would finally understand that mental illness and suicide do not happen to people because they are “weak.”

However, since we don’t have such a technology, the best we can do is educate ourselves about other people, something that college provides a great opportunity to do. It’s too bad that Chet Hanks seems not to be taking advantage of it.

Some of the comments on the Gawker piece I linked to, while generally dismissive of Chet Hanks, are hardly any better:

His expression of emotion is misguided and a bit douche-y, but I second the sentiment. Suicide is a horrible option to exercise as a bullying deterrent. It’s a permanent solution to a potentially temporary problem. It exchanges the pain you feel for the pain of those around you who love you and is essentially a selfish act.
Suicide is selfish and hurts people who care about you, but calling people who are potentially thinking about doing it weak is only going to make things worse. He could have expressed this sentiment in a way that was constructive and helped people, instead of highlighting what an asshat he is.

It’s probably true that some people are psychologically more susceptible to suicide than others, but that difference has nothing to do with “strength” or “weakness.” It also has nothing to do with “willpower” and “selfishness.” To put it broadly, suicide is what happens when a person no longer wants to live–which isn’t necessarily the same thing as wanting to die.

Tragically, most people who commit suicide do so at least in part because they don’t feel like anyone will miss them, and contrary to what the self-righteous commenters above seem to think, not everyone does have friends or family who care about them. It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of people like me who were bullied for being nerdy, kids who get bullied tend to already be marginalized by society in numerous ways–because of fatness or ugliness, mental or physical disability, perceived or real homosexuality, noncompliance with gender roles, and so on. Sometimes, these are the very children who are least likely to have supportive parents, siblings, teachers, and friends cheering them on through their trials.

What Chet seems to miss is that the causal relationship between bullying and suicide isn’t just that a kid goes to school one day and gets called a fag and comes home and tries to kill himself. Bullying is almost never a one-time thing; it can continue over months or years. It’s a constant wearing down of an individual’s self-worth and belief that he/she belongs in this world. Bullies don’t simply call you names and beat you up–they convince you that nobody wants you here.

While supportive friends and family can alleviate these tragic effects somewhat, as I mentioned, not everyone has supportive friends and family. And even if they do, that may not be enough. Children don’t have the freedom that adults have–they’re completely powerless to escape the situation by moving or dropping out of school. The only recourse they generally have is telling an authority figure at school, and that tends to do nothing at best or backfire at worst.

But of course, pretty much everyone reading this blog probably already knows all that. What they probably don’t know is how it actually feels to seriously consider suicide, and how little it has to do with concepts like “weakness” and “selfishness.” If you’d like to hear about it from someone who knows of what she speaks, feel free to ask me personally. Otherwise, I’d recommend this amazing book.

After we read about Chet’s tweet, some of my friends and I started talking about the whole concept of victim blaming and how pervasive it is in our society. Although it’s usually talked about in the context of sexual assault, there really isn’t a single shitty human experience that doesn’t routinely get blamed on its victims: mental illness, bullying, poverty, racism, sexual harassment, you name it. If you have depression, it’s because you’re just not looking on the bright side of life. If you’re getting bullied, it’s because you stick out too much or “react” too much. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re too lazy to get a job. If you’re fat, it’s because you eat crap and don’t exercise. If you feel discriminated against, it’s because you’re “too sensitive.” If you’re getting harassed on the street, your skirt’s too short. And so on and so forth.

(In fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her brilliant book Bright-sided, even cancer, that ultimate of tragedies, is increasingly getting blamed on its victims. Why? Because they didn’t “think positively” enough.)

Sometimes, it’s really difficult and unpleasant to acknowledge the fact that, even in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, when-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way sort of culture, sometimes life just screws people. Sometimes it just does.

It’s easier to blame the victim than to make the sort of cultural changes we would need to make sure that people get screwed over as little as possible. Much easier than to figure out how to teach compassion to kids, how to eradicate racism, how to get people to realize that there’s never an excuse for raping people.

But just because we may not yet know how to do those things does not mean we should just throw up our hands and say, “Yeah well, if they off themselves, it’s just cuz they’re weak.”

The more I study psychology, bullying, and the many challenges faced by people that society continually marginalizes, the more I think: If only it were that simple.

*edit* Also, here’s an awesome blog post about this from my friend Derrick.

Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

Some Thoughts on Depression

[TMI Warning]

About five months ago, I wrote a post on Facebook (and on this blog) about my experience with depression and how I came to receive treatment for it. I remember feeling very triumphant as I wrote it, because I felt like my difficulties were finally over.

This turned out to not exactly be the case.

In January, perhaps precipitated by some unfortunate personal circumstances, I relapsed and have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to recover ever since. The months since then have been filled with a lot of self-loathing, many random bouts of crying (daily at times), and much speculation on my part as to whether or not I really belong in this world.

This is when I realized that my problems, whatever they may be, don’t simply go away when I’m not depressed. I don’t “invent” the issues that I’m unhappy about. But being healthy makes it easier to ignore the pain in the back of my mind–all the wasted opportunities, lost friends, and scarring memories that have built up over the years like dust on a windowpane. When I’m healthy, I simply don’t think about it, and consequently I’m happier. But the mockery that I’ve made of my life isn’t a figment of my imagination; it’s quite real.

~~~

I also started to realize, perhaps even more than I did when I wrote that post, how little the healthy world knows about depression. Mental illness is truly the last taboo; many people refuse to even consider dating someone who has it. Kinda makes me reconsider being so open about my experience…

Even people who would otherwise be supportive just don’t know enough. For instance, if you know your friend is a diabetic, would you offer her a piece of cake? Probably not. But would you casually make fun of your depressed friend? Unfortunately, many people would, even though teasing and jokes are things that many depressives have a lot of trouble with. (This is because depression often causes a cognitive deficit that makes people take everything–a snappy tone of voice, an odd glance, a sarcastic remark–very personally. Here’s a great guide to cognitive distortions.) I am always analyzing and picking apart things that people say to me to try to figure out if they were just teasing or not. I am terrified of the threat of rejection that these casual utterances may carry, so I am always alert, always on my best behavior.

~~~

Another thing I’m never sure of is which parts of me are depression and which are simply me. I’m a skeptic, a cynic, and generally not too big a fan of things that most people seem to really like (Exhibit A: this). I don’t fit in with my surroundings in many ways. I’m more complex, polite, caring, respectful, quiet, conscientious, serious, passionate, emotional, and sensitive than most. I’m less assertive, flaky, impulsive, cheerful, “chill,” and casual than most. This makes for a great number of personality differences between myself and most people I know. When I’m not feeling depressed, these differences fade into the back of my mind. But when I am, they come right to the front, putting up a wall between me and the rest of the world, making me feel like I’ll be an outcast for life.

~~~

One more realization–Northwestern might be the worst place in the world to be depressed. (Not that there’s really a good place for that, except perhaps the psychiatric ward of a hospital.) It’s isolating, stressful, and miserably cold from October till May. Your peers churn industriously around you like a hive of North Face-clad bumblebees while you vegetate listlessly in your shitty shoebox room and email professors, friends, student group leaders one by one and tell them that you’ve been ill and cannot come to whatever crap you’re supposed to be at that day. You eat Nutella from the jar and wonder why none of your friends care. You wonder why you expect them to care. You sleep, a lot.

Northwestern also happens to have entirely inadequate mental health services, but that’s a topic for another post. My friends and I are working to change that. But for now, this is a really, really unfortunate place to be depressed.

~~~

And that’s it, really. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going now, but hopefully it’s somewhere good.

Gender-free Parenting

Maybe in the future.

So a couple in Toronto has decided to keep their newborn baby’s sex a secret from friends and family in order to help the child develop free of gender roles. I have so much difficulty deciding what to think of this. Because first of all, it’s nice to see someone trying to raise their children in a way that allows them to express themselves and be free of this typical “boys must not cry” and “girls must be pretty” bullshit.

However, people need to be realistic. As this Thought Catalog post wisely points out, kids in elementary school segregate themselves by gender and choose their friends accordingly. Who will be friends with little Storm?

Furthermore, Storm’s parents aren’t simply allowing him/her/zer to choose an identity–they’re imposing one. It’s one thing to allow your child to experiment and choose how to act, what to wear, and so on. But it’s entirely another to try to force a child to grow up without a gender at all. The idea should be that regardless of what’s in your pants, you should be allowed to express yourself. Hiding basic biological truths from a child’s friends and family is, in my opinion, going overboard.

There’s also the uncomfortable sense that Storm’s parents might be a bit more concerned with making grand political statements than seeing that their child grows up happy. The email they sent to friends and family said, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime…”

But the thing is, what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime just isn’t what it is right now. A responsible parent raises children with a healthy balance of realism and idealism–not one rather than the other. For instance, I’m sure my parents wish that someday I could walk down the street alone at night in a miniskirt and face no threat of sexual assault. But right now, I can’t do that. So they see to it that I don’t go out dressed like that. I’m sure they also wish that I could freely disclose my diagnosis of depression to whoever I want and face no stigma or prejudice, but that’s not how things are right now. So they tell me to be careful about whom I tell. (Granted, I choose to blog about it anyway, but that’s a choice I’ve consciously made.)

Back to the point. If the intention of Storm’s parents in keeping their child’s biological sex a secret was simply to prevent friends and family from making gendered remarks (and giving gendered presents)…well, I’d like to think that they respect their friends and family enough to be able to ask them politely to refrain. They could ask for non-gendered gifts. They could suggest ways to play with or compliment their child that don’t include references to gender (for instance, saying “Good job” instead of “Good boy/girl”). Sure, that would be a bit more difficult than simply keeping Storm’s sex a secret, but it would be less ridiculously dramatic, that’s for sure.

I’m not sure I see anything good coming of this. Raising a child who flaunts societal norms is a great thing, but that child should be old enough to understand the consequences that, unfortunately and inevitably, arise. A teenager who decides to (for example) dress androgynously knows that others will inevitably react in a negative way. But a little kid can’t possibly understand that. The thought of Storm coming home every day crying because all the other kids make fun of him/her/zer for no apparent reason makes me really sad, and it makes me wonder why these parents are putting their political beliefs before their child’s happiness.

For another (great) post on this topic that I completely agree with, see “A Child is Not a Billboard” by Clarissa.

Think of the Children

Being a 20-year-old college student, I don’t often write about issues relating to children. However, not only do I plan on having kids someday, but I also think that how our society relates to children is often a fascinating subject to study. Furthermore, some things just piss me off.

The subject of this post is both fascinating and infuriating. A blog I follow called Free Range Kids had a post several days ago describing a new law in the works in New Jersey:

We’re getting to the point where ANYTHING having to do with children is so fraught with inflated fears that we are going absolutely crazy. Consider this bill just introduced in the New Jersey state assembly: It would outlaw the photographing or videotaping of kids in situations in which “a reasonable parent or guardian would not expect his child to be the subject of such reproduction.”

According to the post, the reason for this new law is that last summer, a 63-year-old man was caught taking photos of (fully-clothed) girls because, according to him, he finds prepubescent girls “sexy.” While this is, of course, culturally unacceptable (not to mention pretty gross), does it really harm anyone? Is it really that much worse than a camera-less old man simply watching those girls and discreetly masturbating?

Furthermore, as the post mentions, this law would criminalize anyone who takes pictures of their kids in a sports game or at a birthday party, or anyone who takes artistic photographs in public places, which may include children. Since I’m basically my family’s unofficial photographer, I can definitely imagine how frustrating that would be.

I think the question these lawmakers need to ask is, how would this law make children safer? It does nothing to prevent pedophilia or childhood sexual abuse. Someone who has a strong enough sexual urge towards kids to do something like this is unlikely to be restrained by any law, especially when it’s so easy to take photos on the sly.

Ultimately, law-making is about balance. Laws should not cause way more trouble for law-abiding citizens than they’re worth, and this one definitely does.

Periods and Misogyny


This is what I hate.

This is from a Tumblr called, appropriately, “Fuck Periods.” It exists solely to bitch about various feminine problems, most notably, periods. As a woman, I’m all in favor of bitching about periods, but the stereotypes that are often expressed are pretty problematic.

First of all, this isn’t even accurate. I don’t know about any other women who may be reading this, but personally, I don’t “sit in one fucking place for fear of leakage” when I’m on my period. I also don’t get pissed the fuck off by “anything with a face.” When I’m on my period, I go to class, do homework, hang out with friends, go shopping, work out, eat, and sleep just like I do when I’m not on my period. Shocker! Women don’t stop functioning just because it’s that time of the month. Life goes on.

Second, this whole public period-bashing thing makes it even more likely that others (notably men) will attribute any negative mood or opinion expressed by a woman as simply a consequence of her menstrual cycle. If you’re female, chances are you’ve said something negative or gotten upset or angry and had a (again, probably male) friend say, “Are you just on your period or something?”

Honestly, there are few things more offensive than that. The idea that a woman has no legitimate, external reasons to ever be angry or upset–only the internal vicissitudes of her hormones–is preposterous.

Third, and most importantly, rants like these only reinforce the stereotype of women as crazy, overemotional beings controlled entirely by their hormonal cycles. People. Give us a bit more credit than that, please. And I understand that that’s difficult to do when women themselves are painting themselves that way.

On Girlcotts

The fact that Abercrombie & Fitch tried to market a push-up bikini top for pre-pubescent girls is old news now, but I read an interesting post on Fbomb about it and whether or not a “girlcott” would be effective. This got me thinking about the concept of “girlcotts” and of personal boycotts in general.

[Random aside: How would a push-up top work if there's nothing there to push up? Anyways.]

The Fbomb post mentions a so-called “girlcott” led by the Women and Girls Association of Pennsylvania against stupid stuff from Abercrombie in the past. Apparently, it turned out to be effective and Abercrombie stopped selling the stupid stuff in question (though, of course, its shelves are still overflowing with various other crap.)

However, egregious overthinker that I am, I naturally have a problem with the term “girlcott” in the first place. Namely–and the people protesting these sort of issues would do well to recognize it–this is not a women’s issue. This is everybody’s issue. It should not be just women boycotting stores that sell products like this. There are men who don’t want to see these things marketed to their daughters and little sisters. There are men who refuse to buy into our society’s fetishization of little girls, who find themselves sexually attracted to women who look like women, not women who look like prepubescent girls. While men obviously wouldn’t be shopping for this stuff, framing this issue as one that only women should and do care about only robs us of potential allies.

Clearly, this neologism is a response to the perceived gender-specificity of the original word, “boycott.” However, some quick Wikipedia research has uncovered the fact that the word actually comes from someone’s name (specifically, that of Captain Charles Boycott) and has nothing to do with boys whatsoever. Furthermore, the solution to gender-specific words is not more gender-specific words, it’s gender-neutral words.

My second issue with this whole concept stems from a point brought up later in the Fbomb post, which discusses the idea of personally choosing not to shop at a certain store in order to make a point. I have mixed feelings about this. If you’re doing it for your own personal comfort and integrity–as in, you’d feel uncomfortable shopping at a store that doesn’t share your values–then sure. But it definitely annoys me when people think that they’re actually going to have an impact on the store itself if they refuse to shop there. If that’s what you want to do, organize a protest.

At any rate, nobody’s going to care that you personally refuse to shop there. At most, you’ll be preventing yourself from owning things you potentially like and making no impact whatsoever. It just doesn’t make sense.