What Does Religion Bring to the Table? Katha Pollitt’s Talk at Women in Secularism 2

Women In Secularism 2 logo

Note: The Women in Secularism 2 was kind of a weird rollercoaster. The highs — and it was overwhelmingly highs — were very high indeed; the lows were seriously low, and of a variety that seeped poison into the highs and made them harder to appreciate. Many other people have been writing about some of the lows: I will probably weigh in on them at some point myself (although others have already said most of what I would want to say). But the speakers and panelists at WiS2 mostly seem to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Lows aside, this was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended. It’s hard to find the balance between not ignoring the awful but not letting it take over everything, and I’m not going to tell anyone else where that balance should be for them. Myself, I want to spend a couple of days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.

What does religion bring to the table?

Katha PollittAmong the great awesomeness at the Women in Secularism 2 conference was Katha Pollitt. She’s a brilliant thinker; she’s an engaging and down-to-earth speaker who makes complicated ideas clear without talking down to her audience; and she is hi-fucking-larious. (I dearly wish Christopher Hitchens were alive, and had attended this conference, so he could see how funny women are.) And her talk about “Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?” has gotten the wheels of my brain spinning in about twenty different directions at once. The main one at the moment being: What does religion bring to the table?

The tl;dr of Pollitt’s talk (or at least, the main thing I got from it): In the simplest, most practical sense, yes, sexism can be untied from religion. Some religions do oppose sexism, and don’t have sexist teachings. Religion — and here’s the kicker, the part I’ve been ruminating on — is very adept at adapting to changing social mores, to the point where it will twist around and say the exact opposite of what it’s said for centuries, and will actually deny that it says what its teachings clearly say, or even that it ever said that. (“Of course when Paul said ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ he didn’t mean all women! He was just talking about one particular woman in one church! Or else he meant something else by ‘silence’ — he was trying to create a peaceful space for women to learn in! Or…”)

But the same social progress and rational, evidence-based thought processes that leads people to reject sexism also leads people to reject religion. Not in every individual case, obviously: but on the whole, as a general social trend. So while in a small sense, religion doesn’t have to be sexist and can be compatible with feminism, in the long run it’s not: the rope of inequity and irrationality that ties people to religion is the same one that ties people to sexism, and when the rope is loosened, both will eventually fall.

So. Ingrid and I were talking about this the other night. We were talking, specifically, about all the ways religion contorts and twists itself to fit changing social standards and evolving human ethics. We were talking about how it eventually catches up to the idea that witch-burning isn’t so great, and slavery isn’t so great, and racism isn’t so great, and homophobia isn’t so great, and so on. We were talking about how religion generally acts as a brake to these forms of social progress, since people do need to get over their belief that their god wants to them to burn witches and own slaves and whatnot. But eventually, people will reject their religion when their morality outpaces it, and religion has to twist itself around to catch up if it wants to stay relevant. And Ingrid, in one of her ranty rages (I love her when she’s ranty), asked this pertinent question:

“So what does religion bring to the table? If God never has anything to tell us about morality that we don’t figure out on our own, and if religion is always contorting itself to fit evolving morality… what the hell is the point?”

An excellent question.

The answer we pretty much came up with was, “Nothing. It brings nothing to the table.”

I mean, yes, religion obviously gives people some stuff they want. Among other things, religion lets people believe that the creator of the universe cares about them, and that they’re never going to die, and other pretty notions that aren’t true. And it’s an effective idea to organize around, since the requirement to believe ridiculous bullshit acts as a form of psychological hazing.

But when it comes to morality… it’s got nothing. The only thing it brings to the table is the illusion of a cosmic enforcer to whatever ethics a society has come up with on its own. When it comes to the actual ethics, it offers nothing. Nada. Zilch.


If You Have Something To Say, Say It To the CFI Board

cfi-logoIf you have something to say about Ron Lindsay’s insulting and contemptuous talk at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, and/or about his insulting and contemptuous follow-up post responding to the controversy… say it to the CFI Board of Directors.

Don’t just say it on Twitter, or on Facebook, or on blog comments, or even on your own blog. Say it to the people who can do something about it. If you’ve already said something on some other forum, please copy and paste it, edit as appropriate, and send it to the CFI Board of Directors.

The CFI Board of Directors can be emailed via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net. They can also be reached by snail mail, at:

Center for Inquiry Board of Directors
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741

The CFI Board of Directors, as posted on the CFI website, are: R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Kendrick Frazier, Barry Kosmin, Richard Schroeder, Eddie Tabash (Chair, Board of Directors), Jonathan Tobert, Leonard Tramiel, and Judith Walker. Their email addresses are not posted on the CFI website: if you already have contact information for these individuals, it would be awesome to go the extra mile and contact them directly. However, if you don’t, please don’t let that stop you: just email tflynn@centerforinquiry.net, and/or send snail mail to Center for Inquiry Board of Directors, PO Box 741, Amherst, NY 14226-0741.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and need some background, here are some links. I will almost certainly weigh on on this sometime soon: for right now, these folks have said much or most of what I want to say.

An Open Letter to the Center for Inquiry, Amanda Marcotte
The Silencing of Men, Rebecca Watson
An Alternate Universe, Stephanie Zvan
Taking it Personally: Privilege and Women in Secularism, Ashley F. Miller
Some Sadly Necessary Remarks on the #wiscfi Intro, Adam Lee
It’s 4am and people are really annoyed, PZ Myers

If you have something to say — please say it to the people who can do something about it. That contact info again: The CFI Board of Directors can be emailed via tflynn@centerforinquiry.net. They can also be reached by snail mail, at:

Center for Inquiry Board of Directors
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741

“People want to matter more than they want to live”: Rebecca Goldstein’s Talk at Women in Secularism 2

Women In Secularism 2 logo

Note: The Women in Secularism 2 was kind of a weird rollercoaster. The highs — and it was overwhelmingly highs — were very high indeed; the lows were seriously low, and of a variety that seeped poison into the highs and made them harder to appreciate. Many other people have been writing about some of the lows: I may well weigh in on them at some point myself (although others have already said most of what I would want to say). But the speakers and panelists at WiS2 mostly seem to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Lows aside, this was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended. It’s hard to find the balance between not ignoring the awful but not letting it take over everything, and I’m not going to tell anyone else where that balance should be for them. Myself, I want to spend a couple/ few days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.

“People want to matter more than they want to live.”

Rebecca GoldsteinA somewhat interesting thing happened at the Women in Secularism 2 conference. The talk that got most people excited and happy and buzzing was from a speaker who isn’t often seen on the atheism circuit. I asked almost everyone I spoke with at the conference who their favorite speaker was… and almost all of them said, “Rebecca Goldstein.” Or else, since many people weren’t familiar with Goldstein, they said, “The last speaker on Friday before the reception. The one who spoke about mattering.”

That was certainly true for me. I was gobsmacked. I’ve only seen Goldstein speak once before… and both times now, she has completely rearranged my brain. Today’s piece is something of a mish-mash between the ideas she presented in her talk, and the places where my now-rearranged brain is running with them. Mostly, though, they’re her ideas, and she deserves the credit.

The core idea: There are a handful of deep, fundamental desires that drive almost all human beings. We want to eat; we want to have sex; we want connection with other people; we want to feel good; we want to survive. Some others.

Goldstein’s thesis — and one that’s now being supported by many psychologists — is that we have to add something to this list: We want to matter.

Some people, in fact, want to matter more than they want to live. Think about people who are willing to die for a cause. They are willing to die, indeed happy to die, if they think that their death — or the work and the fight they’re risking their lives for — will matter.

This is the idea that’s been resonating through my head for days now. I’m seeing it everywhere. Why are we so obsessed with fame and celebrity? Why do people take ridiculous dangerous risks, just so they can make videos that go viral on YouTube? Why do I get more upset about the ultimate heat-death of the universe than I do about my own eventual death? People want to matter… in some cases, more than we want to live.

So what does this have to do with religion and atheism — or for that matter, with women and feminism and social justice?

Well. For starters:

Jesus_Blessing_the_ChildrenOne of the main things people get from religion is the feeling that they matter. After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you: that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul? In fact, Goldstein — along with the psychologists who are running with this idea — argues that modern religions with more interventionist/ caring gods began to arise with the rise of civilization and cities, when many people began to have less of an intimate connection with their society and their world, and became more anonymous and interchangeable. When you don’t matter as much to the people around you, when the human world is treating you like a replaceable cog in a machine, the more animistic, “gods and spirits are running around doing stuff that affects us but without that much attention to us” religion isn’t as attractive as a god or gods who keep close tabs on each and every human life.

Of course there’s a creepy Orwellian aspect of this kind of belief as well. What with the all-knowing creator of the universe constantly spying on you, never giving you a moment to yourself, listening in on even your private thoughts and desires. But I’m guessing — and I’d be interested to know if the psychology backs me up on this — that most of us who find this God thing more creepy than comforting are people who already have a strong sense of mattering. We don’t need to matter to an invisible magical creator… since we already feel like we matter to the world.

Which brings me to Part Two: What does all this have to do with women and feminism and social justice?

I bet you see where I’m going with this. Or rather, where Rebecca Goldstein is going with this.

Religion — especially this “God knows and cares about every feather falling off of every sparrow, of course he cares about you” religion — is going to be more appealing, and more important, to people who feel that they don’t matter. People who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them, will have more of a need to believe in a god who sees them and loves them, a god to whom they matter. People who have a greater sense of agency, visibility, influence, aren’t going to need that as much.

And when you think about people who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them — women are high on that list. Along with poor people, blue-collar people, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, many others I don’t have space to list here.

So if atheism is going to flourish, we need to do two things.

1: We need to make damn well sure that these folks matter to us.

We can’t keep building a community and a movement for people who already have power, people who already feel like they matter. We need to build a community and a movement where otherwise marginal, invisible, anonymous people matter. And we can’t just decide to make their concerns our concerns, out of the benevolence of our hearts. We need to create a community and a movement where all atheists count as “we.” We need to create a community and a movement where these folks get a voice, a place at the table, a say in what matters to all of us.

And 2: We need to work towards a world where these folks matter more… period.

society_without_godIt’s already been well-documented (largely and most famously in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment by Phil Zuckerman) that societies with high levels of happiness and social functioning tend to be societies with high rates of atheism. If Goldstein’s hypothesis holds up, this doesn’t just apply to the obvious elements of the “happiness index” Zuckerman talks about, a strong economy and a low crime rate and good education and good health care and well-supported arts and good beer. It applies to whether people feel like they matter: whether social policies are more egalitarian or more rigidly hierarchical, whether there’s relative economic equality or economic power is in the hands of a few, whether the government is deeply corrupt or the people have a say in it.

We need to treat people as if they matter. Everyone. We need to put work and effort into getting people to matter who commonly feel like they don’t. We have to do this if we want atheism to flourish.

Not to mention it being, you know, the right thing to do.

#mencallmethings: “fucking ugly. Kill yourself.”

Comment from Kali Dali, in the discussion on the post Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety:

goddamn you are fucking ugly. Kill yourself.


A few notes:

1: Who the hell tells someone to kill themselves… as a comment on a post about clinical depression?

2: In the context of this weekend’s Women in Secularism conference: If anyone is still wondering why so many of think atheism needs to pay attention to sexism and misogyny, at the absolute minimum as an internal matter within our own movement, and why we need to actively work on making atheism more welcoming to women… wake up and smell the coffee. Wake up and smell the toxic cesspool that women, especially vocal feminist women on the internet, swim in every day. I don’t even get the worst of it: other women get it worse than I do, and more consistently. (Documentation; more documentation; still more documentation.) If you’re wondering why we need events like Women in Secularism, and other pieces of unique attention paid to to the experiences of women in this movement… this is Exhibit A. Except it’s not Exhibit A. It’s more like Exhibit W. It’s more like Exhibit W (2) h (iv).

3: Who the hell tells someone to kill themselves… as a comment on a post about clinical depression?

4: I’m going to issue the standard request that I always issue when the #thing that #menhavecalled me is some version of “ugly”: Please, unless you’re a personal friend or someone I’m having sex with, don’t try to make me feel better by saying that I’m not ugly. If I write about fashion or post the hot pic of myself in the Skepticon calendar, you can say nice things about how I look… but please don’t do it here. I’m not calling this out to garner reassurance about my appearance. I’m calling this out to show people the kind of shit women routinely deal with. I have a thick skin, and I don’t get my feelings hurt by sexist jackasses calling me names. That isn’t the point.

The point isn’t that I’m not ugly. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.

5: Who the hell tells someone to kill themselves… as a comment on a post about clinical depression?

6: The #mencallmethings hashtag does not say #allmencallmethings, or #mostmencallmethings. If you want to learn more about the history of this hashtag and why people started using it, please read But How Do You Know It’s Sexist? The #MenCallMeThings Round-Up and Why Are You In Such A Bad Mood? #MenCallMeThings Responds! on Tiger Beatdown, where the hashtag originated. And please do not start a “but not all men are like that, so the #mencallmethings hashtag is reverse sexism!” argument. That has been addressed, at length, in the comments in the #mencallmethings: “FUCKIN HOE,” “FUCKIN FEMINAZI SLUT” post, as well as elsewhere. Please read Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny if you’re wondering why I will not take kindly that that particular line of conversation.


Do you understand that it’s fairly common for clinically depressed people are suicidal? I’m not, as it happens… but it’s a very common symptom of the illness. Who the hell goes to someone with an illness that puts them at risk for suicide, in a space where they’re talking about this illness, and tells them to kill themselves? I mean, who the hell tells someone to kill themselves anyway, ever… but seriously? Who the hell tells someone to kill themselves… as a comment on a post about clinical depression?

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety

(This is part of a series on mindfulness based stress reduction: a secular, evidence-based meditation practice that I’ve recently started.)

Note to self: This works.

It has been a bad, bad couple of days. I don’t want to get into a lot of details… but it hasn’t been good. My depression, which has largely been lifting over the last couple/few weeks, relapsed with a resounding crash. I’ve been feeling alarmed, unsafe, exposed, powerless, despairing, unmotivated, hopeless.

I’m on a plane as I write this. With several hours to sit in one place and do nothing, I decided to meditate.

It was difficult: my mind has been racing even faster and wilder than usual, and it has been perseverating on all the dark things, all the failures of my past, all the worst possible outcomes of my future. It was more than a little difficult to just sit and be: be with myself, be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. I bloody well didn’t want to be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. My thoughts and feelings and sensations were freaking me the fuck out. I wanted to shut them up, shut them out, drown them out. But I knew — both from my own experience and from the research that’s been done on this mindfulness-based stress reduction thing — that this might work: that this might quiet me down, restore some sense of peace. Or at least, restore some sense of self.

So I did it. I sat still in my seat on the plane, and closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing… and my breathing… and my breathing… and on the sole of my left foot where it was pressing against the floor of the plane… and on my left big toe… and on my left pinky toe… and on the toes in between…

And when I finished, I felt better.

Like, really better.

I’m still upset. But I feel… I don’t quite know how to put this into words. I feel like myself, feeling upset. I don’t feel like the upset itself. I don’t feel swallowed by the upset, or carried away by it. I’m still upset… but I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is manageable. And I feel like it’s worth it. I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is one sour note in a good piece of music… not like it’s swallowing me whole.

At the beginning of the session, my mind was stubbornly racing to all the dark things. It took me I don’t know how long — I wasn’t looking at a clock — to really feel the sole of my left foot, even for a second, and really experience the sensations in it. My mind would not shut the fuck up: I had to keep noticing the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… like every three fucking seconds. I wasn’t looking at a clock, but I suspect it took me a good half hour just to get through my left leg.

But by the time I got to my right leg, I was starting to feel better. My mind was still racing, still frantically jumping from branch to branch… but at least some of the branches it was landing on before I pulled my focus back on were happy ones, plans I was excited about, ideas I’ve been having fun with. By the time I got to my pelvic girdle, I was remembering that I actually enjoy meditation and take pleasure in it: that it is a deep and genuine pleasure to set aside time and experience my body, to notice that I am my body and to return to that awareness. (I always like it when I get to my pelvic girdle.) There was a weird scary moment when I got to my mouth and nose: the feeling of awareness of each part of my body felt like sinking into a warm bath, and when it got to my mouth and nose, I had a sudden panicky feeling like I was about to drown. But I noticed it, and paused, and just stayed with my neck for a little while, and finally I reframed the “sinking into water” thing as “sinking into a pool of super-oxygenated air,” and moved on. By the time I got to the top of my head, the process of noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, had become second-nature. And by the time I was finishing, by the time I was experiencing my entire body as a whole entity and was returning to noticing my surroundings and my sense of myself in the world, I felt… not just calmer, not just happier, not just more hopeful. I felt like myself. I felt capable of experiencing pleasure, capable of managing the problems in my life, capable of doing the work that I love so much… because I felt like I had a self. I felt like there was a there there.

It was like a circuit-breaker.

This is not a panacea for depression. Far from it. I don’t think this would be working without meds, and therapy, and exercise, and sitting on the sofa with Ingrid petting cats, and all the other things I do to heal my depression.

But it sure as heck is helping.

So I’m writing this: partly to let other people know that they might want to check this out, but mostly as a reminder to myself:

This works.

So keep doing it.

I wrote something a few days ago about the meditation practice, about how after a week of doing it I was already seeing noticeable results…and about how then, inexplicably, I stopped doing it. As if it were a theorem in math, and once I’d figured it out, I didn’t need to do it again, and could move on to the next theorem. But it’s not a theory. It’s a practice. And there’s a difference between theory and practice. I can’t say to myself, “Aha! You now know that meditation helps with your depression and anxiety and makes you better able to focus — problem solved!” Any more than I can say to myself, “Aha! You know that working out builds your muscles and gives you strength and stamina — problem solved!” I have to actually freaking do it. Several times a week. Every day, if I can.

But when I do it, my life gets better.

So yeah. Note to self. This works. Keep doing it.

Other piece in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice

Godless Perverts Social Meetup Now A Regular Thing! Next One This Tuesday 5/21!

Reminder: The Godless Perverts Social Meetup is now a regular thing! And the next one is this Tuesday!

Wicked Grounds iconJoin us every third Tuesday of the month at Wicked Grounds, San Francisco’s renowned BDSM-themed coffee house, for an evening of conversation and socializing. Community is one of the reasons we started Godless Perverts. There are few enough places to land when you decide that you’re an atheist; far fewer if you’re also LGBT, queer, kinky, poly, trans, or are just interested in sexuality. All orientations, genders, and kinks (or lack thereof) welcome. There’s no admission, but we ask that you buy food and drink at the counter, or make a donation to the venue.

The Godless Perverts Social Meetup will be every third Tuesday at Wicked Grounds, 289 – 8th Street at Folsom (near Civic Center BART). The next one: May 21st, 7-9 pm. Hope to see you there!

“She loved being bent over”: Excerpt from “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More”

Bending coverExcerpt from “Bending,” the erotic novella that’s the foundation of “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.” Now for sale on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords! Content note: Kinky sex.


She loved being bent over. More than any fiddling that might precede it, more than any fumbling sex act that might follow. The moment of being bent over was like a sex act to Dallas, like foreplay and climax blended into one swooning, too-short moment. A hand on her neck, pressing gently but firmly downward, felt like a tongue on her clit; a voice in her ear, telling her calmly and reasonably to bend over and pull down her pants, felt like a cock in her cunt.

She always masturbated in that position. She sometimes masturbated by getting in that position and then doing nothing else. She would stand by the arm of her sofa, by the side of the bed, at the edge of the kitchen table; and she would bare her ass, slowly, and slowly bend herself over… and then she would stand there, bent over, hands on her hips or behind the small of her back, thinking. Thinking about what she looked like, thinking about what she felt like. Thinking about the feel of the air on the skin of her exposed ass. Thinking about hands on her thighs, paddles on her bottom, dicks and dildos in her asshole and her cunt. Thinking about what a dirty hungry girl she was. Thinking, until she came.

The furnishings that crowded Dallas’s apartment would be a dead giveaway to anyone who knew what to look for. Sofas and armchairs with wide, firm backs and arms; tables and dressers that were all waist height; a small but varied collection of hairbrushes, vintage and modern. A padded table she had had made for her, its height easily adjustable so her head and torso could be raised or lowered as the mood required. It could pass for a sewing or card table. She called it the bending table. She tried not to use it too often, for fear of using up all the magic.

It was hard sometimes. She saw a video once, where a man bent a woman over a toilet and shoved her head in it while he fucked her in the ass. She thought she would pass out. She watched the scene ten times, pale, wet between her legs, a shaking hand on the remote. She watched it ten times, and then took the video back to the rental place and never watched it again. It made her stomach hurt, the thought that this act had happened — literally, physically, factually happened — to someone who wasn’t her.

She did have lovers. Many of them over the years. Dozens if you counted them all, more if you counted very carefully. More than one of these lovers had accused Dallas of being a black hole, an accusation she felt was deeply unfair, not to mention inaccurate. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to give anything. She simply felt that what she did have to give was sufficient. Her pain, her submission, her ass in the air presented like a jewel on a satin pillow, her willingness to do almost anything a person could do in that position… Dallas felt that all of this was a tremendous gift. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to give anything. It was that she had yet to find a lover who wanted what she had to give. She found this tremendously annoying. Hurtful, too, for sure, and frustrating at times to the point of despair, but mostly just annoying as hell.

And the accusation — “You only like to do one thing” — completely baffled her. It wasn’t one thing, she argued to herself on her way home from a particularly frustrating squabble. It wasn’t one thing, any more than so-called regular sex was one thing. Being bent over was a whole field of things, an entire genus, with a zillion details that could vary. Wriggling and weeping versus serene submission; being gently guided to the edge of the bed versus being shoved onto the floor; jeans and cotton panties yanked down to her knees versus a flimsy skirt slowly pulled up to reveal her sluttily un-pantied bottom… these were distinct sex acts, obviously and self-evidently, as different as, say, intercourse and oral sex seemed to be for the rest of the world. The portion of the world that she’d been fucking, anyway.

Certain details about her lovers didn’t much matter to her. Male, female, neither or both, any of these were fine. Age, race, height, weight, occupation or lack thereof, smoking habits, voting habits, all those things that kept showing up in the personal ads; none of them made much difference to Dallas. Lately, it was beginning to make less and less difference whether she even found them attractive. It was beginning to matter only whether they were willing.

For example.

[Read more…]

“Mad Men,” and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

Mad Men DonI want to talk about “Mad Men.” I want to talk about how kinky sex and sadomasochism get used in pop culture as narrative markers to show, either how evil a character is, or how damaged a character is. And I want to beseech the producers of pop culture to please, please, knock it the fuck off.

I’ll get this out of the way first: I love “Mad Men.” I think it’s one of the best programs currently on TV; actually, I think it’s one of the best programs that’s ever been on TV. This isn’t a “Mad Men did this thing, therefore they suck” piece. This is a “”Mad Men did this thing, and I still love the show, but I really wish they wouldn’t do this, especially since it’s such a depressingly common pattern” piece.

So. In last Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Don Draper and Sylvia Rosen take their torrid affair into a hotel room… where things get seriously kinky between them. Don orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes — and although she declines to crawl, she does fetch his shoes…s and gets on her knees in front of him, to put his shoes on his feet. And thus begins a very intense interlude of sexual dominance play between them, in which Don orders Sylvia to undress, get back into bed, and stay there in the hotel room waiting for him, while he comes and goes at his leisure. In which he phones her, instructs her that she’s going to wait for him without knowing when he’s coming back, and then orders her not to pick up the phone again — an order that she obeys. In which he sends her a beautiful and sexy evening dress from Saks Fifth Avenue, and then, instead of taking her out to dinner, orders her to take it off for him, right there in the room. In which he takes her book away from her, controlling even what she thinks about when he’s not there. In which she asks him for instructions, asking, “What do I do now?” — and he tells her, “You fall asleep the minute I close that door. I’m flying upstate — and when I come back, I want you ready for me.” In which he tells her, “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” In which both Don and Sylvia both seem to be getting off, hard, and at great length.

We’ve seen Don’s kinky side come out before. When he and Betty broke up and he was living alone, he hired a prostitute to slap him in the face while having sex with him. And he and Megan have some sort of kink going on in their sex life… kink they only talk about obliquely (when Don suggests that Megan is picking a fight so they can have rough sex, she uncomfortably says, “This isn’t about that.”) But this episode spells it out much more clearly, and at much greater length, than the show ever has before. And I won’t deny it — as a kinky person, I found last Sunday’s sequence incredibly sexy. The fantasy of having a willing human sex toy holed up in a secret room, for you to enjoy at your whim — or the fantasy of being that sex toy — is, for many kinky people, super-duper-hot. Myself included. And it’s a fantasy that could easily be acted out consensually, by any number of sane, ethical, happy sadomasochists.

mad men sylvia and donBut here’s the thing. In this scene — in all of these scenes — Don’s kinkiness is used as a narrative marker for how broken he is. The fact that he wants to dominate and control Sylvia in the bedroom, and keep her secluded and away from the world for his use only… it’s used as a marker for how he wants to isolate and control the women in his life generally. The fact that he and Megan play dominant/ submissive sex games… it’s used as a marker of how screwed-up the power dynamics are between them. The fact that Don hired a woman to slap him in the face… it’s used as a marker of how guilt-ridden Don is, especially when it comes to women and sex, and of what a dark place he is at this moment in his life. It’s not just that Don is kinky, and is also emotionally broken. It’s that Don’s kinkiness is being used specifically as an indicator of how broken he is.

And I am sick, sick, sick of this shit. I am sick to freaking death of kinky sex — or even just a display of the outfits and equipment of kinky sex — routinely getting used as a cheap, easy, quick-and-dirty way to indicate that a character is either evil, or damaged, or both. [Read more…]

9 Questions That Atheists Might Find Insulting (And the Answers)

Some questions make atheists feel second-class — and make you look like a jerk for asking them.

question mark signAsked of Hispanic-Americans: “Are you in this country legally?” Asked of gays and lesbians and bisexuals: “How do you have sex?” Asked of trans people: “Have you had the surgery?” Asked of African-Americans: “Can I touch your hair?”

I think every marginalized group has some question, or questions, that routinely get asked of them — and that drive them up a tree, questions that have insult or bigotry or dehumanization woven into the very asking. Sometimes the questions get asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they get asked douchily, in a hostile, passive-aggressive, “I’m just asking questions” manner. But it’s still not okay to ask them. They’re not questions that open up genuine inquiry and discourse: they’re questions that close minds, much more than they open them. Even if that’s not the intention And most people who care about bigotry and marginalization and social justice — or who just care about good manners — don’t ask them.

Here are nine questions you shouldn’t ask atheists. I’m going to answer them, just this once. And then I’ll explain why you shouldn’t be asking them, and why so many atheists will get ticked off if you do.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 9 Questions That Atheists Might Find Insulting (And the Answers). To find out what these questions are — and why I think people shouldn’t ask them — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!