Darker shades of pink: Having depression when you’re transgender

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)The past few years of my life have featured various events that repeatedly force me to update significant parts of how I understand myself.

I used to see little purpose in life and no path forward for myself, until I created an ongoing open-ended project to direct my energies toward, and coincidentally slid into utter femininity in a matter of months. I’ve gone from coasting on the decades-long assumption that I was still a guy – just an extremely femme one – to realizing that no part of me bristles against womanhood. I thought I didn’t have any gender dysphoria, and medically transitioning was simply a matter of taking things from “good” to “even better”. Then I started HRT and gained the perspective to see just how awful, how suffocating, how unbearable things were before – and how it brought me to a place where I was finally a happy, functional person who truly loved life.

About that last one…

You’d think, after all this, I’d understand that things are always going to keep changing. I should realize by now that if I believe the current state of my life will persist forever, I’m almost certainly wrong. Many of my writings should be considered mostly obsolete for that very reason. They’re snapshots of a certain time in my life, not conclusions meant to persist for all eternity – and as more time passes, they’ll become more divergent from reality.

Still: I thought I had fixed this. I thought I had found the answer – the reason why I had felt so pervasively uncomfortable for all of my life, and the solution that did what nothing else could and actually made everything better. I thought I was in the clear to check that off as decisively handled.

I’m now having another one of those moments where I’m forced to realize: I was wrong. I was wrong about having fully understood the nature of my problems. And I was wrong about the extent to which transitioning could adequately address them.

1. How I experience dysphoria

For the most part, my dysphoria typically doesn’t feel like discomfort with the physical form of my body. My dysphoria feels like depression. I wasn’t aware of this similarity at first, because I didn’t yet have an understanding of what depression feels like. Other people had to tell me.

When I wrote “8 signs and symptoms of indirect gender dysphoria”, I aimed to offer a description of the emotional problems which I experienced prior to transition, and which went away after I transitioned – experiences that had also sometimes been relayed by other trans people. I did my best to convey how this felt for me:

  • “I could force myself to get things done, but it would take a lot out of me. I would be irritable, snappish, annoyed by everything, and in anywhere from a mildly bad mood to a very bad mood almost every day.”
  • “As a child, I would cry almost every day at the drop of a hat. Anything could trigger it – being even mildly reprimanded, getting a wrong answer on schoolwork, the sort of insignificant things that no one else around me ever cried so frequently about.”
  • “A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script.”
  • “When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.”
  • “Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful.”
  • “I often wondered how other kids could just go about their lives, talking and laughing and being so calm and happy, like nothing was wrong.”

Many trans people told me that this article resonated strongly with them; some said it was as if they were reading what could have been their own journal. Others pointed out that there was substantial overlap between what I described, and the symptoms of depression. Some felt that this overlap was so complete, the article was not a meaningful description of dysphoria at all – one trans woman called it “frankly, bullshit”.

To show a connection between these experiences and gender dysphoria, I had to rely on one key point: that these issues were present before I transitioned, and they unexpectedly subsided once I began to transition.

So what does it mean when they come back?

2. The limits of my understanding

Before transitioning, I had concluded that these pervasive negative feelings were simply an innate aspect of my personality, and something I’d have to learn how to live with:

I figured all I could do was ignore it as much as possible and focus on whatever positives I could find – I gave up hope of ever truly fixing this.

So, having decided that this is just how I am, I didn’t think to consider whether these issues might be due to an actual, knowable cause like dysphoria or depression. Even as I developed a better sense of my gender, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a link between finding a more suitable identity for myself and resolving my emotional problems. I saw these things as two parallel lines, each progressing on their own path but never intersecting. I didn’t regard transitioning as a way of fixing my mood issues – of all the reasons I was driven to do it, this just wasn’t one of them.

So it came as a surprise when these two things began to interact: I started HRT in 2012, and almost immediately felt free of all the crushing negativity for the first time in my life. Thus, I learned to recognize dysphoria. I did not learn to recognize depression.

This would prove to be a major deficiency in my understanding of the problems I’ve faced. Around the end of 2013, I started experiencing what seemed like the same thing all over again:

  • Being exhausted by everything, and irritable all the time
  • Feeling unable to handle the basics of everyday life
  • Becoming stressed to the point of crying at the end of every day
  • Seeing no ultimate point to anything I did, and feeling it was all meaningless
  • Wondering why I even had to be alive

Because I had previously associated these feelings with dysphoria, my first guess was that all of this had to be linked to gender-related factors. So that was where I started: Was it my recently-adjusted progesterone dose? Is it that I just haven’t had the right surgeries? I switched back to my previous dose – but the relief was only temporary. (Surgeries, obviously, are not quite so accessible or easy to experiment with.)

It just didn’t make sense – I didn’t understand why everything suddenly felt so horrible, even though very little had changed. I was starting to get scared. Things were fine before. What is this?

3. Looking beyond gender

My fiancée Heather has often provided a useful outside perspective on my issues. That just sounds really abstracted, though. The truth is, she’s the reason I realized I’d rather be someone’s girlfriend than their boyfriend. She was the first person to call me “she” all the time and make it feel normal, a simple fact of who I am. She started a new life with me, in a place where everyone knew me as a woman. She let me know that starting hormones would make me even more desirable in her eyes, not less.

Without her, much of my transition wouldn’t have happened with such efficiency, or happened at all. We’ve been together for nearly three years, and Heather knows me very well. She’s also struggled with depression throughout her life, and this provided her with some degree of insight into just what the hell was going on with me this time.

When she noticed I’d been miserable for weeks, and asked me what was wrong, I told her how all of this felt – how everything just seemed like too much, and I didn’t feel like I could handle it anymore, and I didn’t know why. It sounded familiar to her, and she raised the possibility of depression. I asked her: is this what depression feels like? She confirmed this. My next, even more desperate question: just how helpful is her medication?

4. Navigating healthcare as a trans woman

I only go to my gynecologist for HRT and the associated check-ups and blood monitoring. I’d have to find someone else for this new… thing. (I still wasn’t certain of how to name it, and I’d talk about it in terms like “this stuff” or “dealing with things”.) Before this, I actually didn’t have a regular physician, largely because I just didn’t want to deal with doctors. It’s not due to some arbitrary aversion – it’s because receiving appropriate and sensitive healthcare when you’re trans, even healthcare completely unrelated to transitioning, is a minefield.

Trans people have often found that when they seek care for any sort of illness, their doctors advise them to discontinue HRT regardless of whether their current health problem has any connection to this. Some of us don’t even get that far – one of my friends was unable to receive any medical attention for her asthma simply because her doctor refused to treat trans people at all.

This issue is more than anecdotal: in a national survey of over 6,000 trans people, 19% reported they had been denied service by a healthcare provider due to being trans. 28% had been harassed in a medical setting because they’re trans. And 28% also reported that because of disrespect and discrimination from providers, they delayed or avoided treatment when they were ill.

That may not be wise, but when cis people go to a clinic for a flu or a broken toe, they generally don’t have to worry about being turned away just because of who they are. We do, so seeking care can be a difficult thing to contemplate. When going to a new and unfamiliar doctor, we never know what kind of ignorance or hostility we’re going to face. It’s an alarming unknown.

So I went with the option that we already knew the most about. Heather’s family doctor had treated her depression and anxiety, and he knows that she’s queer – she told me of how she’d started crying in his office while talking about how her co-workers called her a “fag” every day. She’s never had problems with him. I’d also met him when we took our son for check-ups, and he was really friendly toward all of us. To me, he seemed like the best bet. Heather reassured me: “If he gives you any trouble, we’re all firing him.”

5. “Mild depression”

Outness is a risk factor for refusal of service: 23% of trans people who are out to their medical providers have been denied service, compared to only 15% of those who aren’t out. Nevertheless, I still listed my current medications on the intake form, and left helpful notes like “I am a transsexual woman (male-to-female)” in the “other information” section. I didn’t want to have to deal with any surprise issues if they only realized I was trans later on, nor did I want to see someone who would only be willing to treat me under the pretense that I’m cis.

Fortunately, all of this turned out to be a non-issue. Other than asking whether I was taking hormones under the supervision of a doctor and whether I’d had a blood test recently, the topic didn’t even come up. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him everything – the way that life had somehow become unbearable for no apparent reason, and the dread I felt at having to face every single day. And I made sure he knew that it wasn’t like this before, that transitioning had helped me more than I ever expected, that it really did make things so much better and I didn’t know why this was happening now.

He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, even identifying the feelings I hadn’t yet mentioned: the monotony of everything, and the difficulty with finding the motivation to get started on almost any activity. Everything he said gave me the impression that he understood this well. He concluded that because this appeared to be a more recent and transient problem rather than a lifelong issue, it was likely a kind of “mild depression”.

We worked out a balance of which medication would be both affordable and effective for me, and ended up settling on his first recommendation – something he felt would give me more energy. “I take it myself”, he reassured me as he wrote the prescription.

6. Anything but trans

People widely regard being trans as an undesirable existence. Often, cis people just don’t want the people around them to be trans – whether this comes from a place of overt intolerance, or just pity and regret for the hardships we face. And trans people, sometimes to an even greater extent than cis people, have also been known to seek out any potential reason to conclude that they’re not actually trans and therefore won’t need to face expensive procedures and near-universal hostility from society.

This urge to avoid the possibility of transness manifests as a staggering variety of excuses and denials. The cis people around us, often our parents and relatives, may claim that our gender-related feelings can instead be explained as a product of:

  • Childhood bullying
  • Sexual abuse
  • Negative experiences with other members of one’s assigned sex
  • The influence of supportive therapists and other professionals
  • Following a trend among a social circle
  • Viewing pornography
  • Homosexuality
  • Unspecified “confusion”
  • Demonic supernatural influences
  • Low testosterone (for trans women)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Autism
  • Depression

These are all things that trans people have actually reported hearing from various cis people, and this is not an exhaustive list. Given the prevalence of these creative explanations, trans people in search of reasons to doubt their own transness have ample opportunity to seize on them as well. But this fervent effort to locate any possible alternatives to transness extends beyond the poorly-informed folklore of laypersons. It’s also visible in the poorly-informed folklore of certain medical professionals.

7. Trans-negativity in medicine

Dr. Kenneth Zucker is head of the Gender Identity Service for children at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Under his direction, this program has subjected children to a form of reparative therapy to discourage them from being trans or questioning their gender. This includes taking away “girlish toys” like dolls from male-assigned children and encouraging more stereotypically masculine interests, an approach resembling the techniques of discredited “ex-gay” programs.

Zucker contends that cross-gender identification in children is driven by other issues not directly related to their gender, and calls their feelings “a ‘fantasy solution,’ that being the other sex will make them happy” – in other words, a misguided answer to a separate problem in their lives. He posits that their desire to live as another sex is instead largely rooted in family issues:

First, he thinks that family dynamics play a large role in childhood GID—not necessarily in the origins of cross-gendered behavior, but in their persistence. It is the disordered and chaotic family, according to Zucker, that can’t get its act together to present a consistent and sensible reaction to the child, which would be something like the following: “We love you, but you are a boy, not a girl. Wishing to be a girl will only make you unhappy in the long run, and pretending to be a girl will only make your life around others harder.” So the first prong of Zucker’s approach is family therapy. Whatever conflicts or issues that parents have that prevent them from uniting to help their child must be addressed.

Zucker is open about his belief that transness should be avoided if at all possible:

Despite these difficulties, Zucker clearly feels it’s important to at least attempt change. He points out that the burden of living as the opposite gender is great, and should not be casually embraced.

“We’re not talking about minor medical treatments. … You’re talking about lifelong hormonal treatment; you’re talking about serious and substantive surgery,” he says.

Failure to intervene increases the chances of transsexualism in adulthood, which Zucker considers a bad outcome. For one, sex change surgery is major and permanent, and can have serious side effects. Why put boys at risk for this when they can become gay men happy to be men?

(In fairness to Zucker, he is noted as “the first to acknowledge that no scientific studies currently support the effectiveness of what he does.”)

Alice Dreger, a bioethicist who previously compared gender-questioning kids to children who unseriously pretend to be train engines, promotes a similar idea. She’s cited unnamed clinicians as agreeing that these children are the product of “dysfunctional” families:

Here’s more unwelcome news from Ms. Dreger. A child’s gender issue may merely be a symptom of other family problems. “The dirty little secret is that many of these families have big dysfunctional issues. When you get the clinicians over a beer, they’ll tell you the truth. A lot of the parents aren’t well in terms of their mental health. They think that once the child transitions, all their problems will magically go away, but that’s not really where the stress is located.” Clinicians won’t say these things publicly, she says, because they don’t want to sound as if they’re blaming gender problems on screwed-up families.

Dreger likewise depicts transitioning as undesirable, and endorses alternatives where possible:

Sex-changing interventions are nontrivial. They involve substantial physical risk, including major risk to sexual sensation, and a lifelong commitment to trying to manage hormone replacement. …

But somehow if we wrap these major interventions around gender identity, we’re supposed to believe they are not that big a deal in terms of planning for a child’s future? And the clinician who tries to get a gender dysphoric kid to learn to like her or his innate body really is a Nazi? Not buying it. …

What if a boy could go to school in a dress and still be a boy? What if a girl could declare she’s going to grow up to be a man without being dragged to a clinic for a cure and/or prep?

effexor-poster-2As a trans woman, my diagnosis of depression exists within the context of these widespread attitudes. We live in a society where transitioning is regarded as a “bad outcome”, a last resort, only to be pursued when all other avenues for dealing with this discomfort have been exhausted. Are you sure you’re not just gay? Maybe you only think you’re trans because you’re afraid of other men. Can’t you wear a dress and still be a boy?

We’re warned that this may be no more than an illusory “fantasy solution” to our real problems. Commonplace medical practices reflect this overabundance of caution, something which became all the more striking when compared to my recent experiences. Unlike in 2012, I did not need to find one of the few therapists in a city of millions who would evaluate me and provide a lengthy referral letter for treatment. Instead, I was able to go to the same doctor as the rest of my family, and soon found myself sitting in an exam room full of detailed posters about depression and the drugs that might help. Within 30 minutes, I walked out with a prescription in hand. Trans people are often asked to consider whether they may just be depressed cis people – but depressed cis people are rarely asked to consider whether they might be trans.

Yet I’ve now found out that my ongoing unhappiness has persisted through transition, and so I’ve opted to receive treatment for depression. What am I supposed to make of that? And what will others make of it?

8. Relationships between dysphoria and depression

Actually, there are some critical (and obvious) flaws in the notion that other mental health conditions may serve as an “alternative explanation” to apparent gender dysphoria.

For one, there is no reason why gender dysphoria and other mental illnesses should be seen as mutually exclusive. If you’re trans, having depression doesn’t suddenly make you no longer trans. (For that matter, neither does childhood bullying, sexual abuse, autism, and so on.) Would anyone ever make a similar argument about physical conditions – that, say, you can’t have both Crohn’s disease and migraine headaches? Those also make me feel pretty terrible, but it would be absurd to claim that only one of these is responsible for the entirety of my physical pain. There is no reason they can’t coexist as contributors to that pain. And just as I’ve had to acknowledge that my gender dysphoria alone isn’t sufficient to explain all of my mood issues, it would be equally faulty for someone else to claim that my depression alone would suffice to explain this.

Does it seem at all realistic that there would be no occurrence of depression among trans people? People sometimes get depressed, and trans people are people. Scientific studies confirm, rather predictably, that gender dysphoria and depression can coexist. A 1997 study of 435 trans people found that they experienced psychiatric conditions at a rate similar to cis people:

Specifically, gender dysphoric individuals appear to be relatively “normal” in terms of an absence of diagnosable, comorbid psychiatric problems. In fact, the incidence of reported psychiatric problems is similar to that seen in the general population. Similarities in incidence included depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. … Although a small percentage of gender dysphoric individuals in this sample had prior identifiable psychiatric problems (7-10%), this is not inconsistent with the general population.

And a 2010 study found comparable levels of mental health conditions in 579 people diagnosed with gender dysphoria:

Adjustment disorder (6.7%, 38/579) and anxiety disorder (3.6%, 21/579) were relatively frequent. Mood disorder was the third most frequent (1.4%, 8/579).

Furthermore, studies of trans people undergoing medical transition have consistently confirmed that these procedures are significantly helpful in addressing the symptoms of other mental health conditions, and increase our general well-being. Hormone therapy, in particular, stands out as a key factor in reducing levels of distress. A 2013 study followed 57 trans people before and after HRT and genital reassignment surgery, and found that starting HRT was associated with a marked decrease in depression and anxiety:

A difference in SCL-90 overall psychoneurotic distress was observed at the different points of assessments (P = 0.003), with the most prominent decrease occurring after the initiation of hormone therapy (P < 0.001). Significant decreases were found in the subscales such as anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility. Furthermore, the SCL-90 scores resembled those of a general population after hormone therapy was initiated.

Another study of 70 trans people examined their self-reported stress and their blood levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Being on HRT was linked to a reduction in perceived stress levels and cortisol awakening response:

At enrollment, transsexuals reported elevated CAR; their values were out of normal. They expressed higher perceived stress and more attachment insecurity, with respect to normative sample data. When treated with hormone therapy, transsexuals reported significantly lower CAR (P < 0.001), falling within the normal range for cortisol levels. Treated transsexuals showed also lower perceived stress (P < 0.001), with levels similar to normative samples.

And in another study of 187 trans people, initiation of hormone therapy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety:

Overall, 61% of the group of patients without treatment and 33% of the group with hormonal treatment experienced possible symptoms (score 8–10) or symptoms (score >11) of anxiety. The same pattern was found for symptoms of depression; the percentages were significantly higher in the group of patients without treatment (31%) than in the group on hormonal treatment (8%).

A study tracking 118 trans people before and after hormone therapy found that their levels of depression, anxiety, and functional impairment were much lower after HRT:

Psychiatric distress and functional impairment were present in a significantly higher percentage of patients before starting the hormonal treatment than after 12 months (50% vs. 17% for anxiety; 42% vs. 23% for depression; 24% vs. 11% for psychological symptoms; 23% vs. 10% for functional impairment).

And a study of 67 trans people found that those who received HRT had a higher quality of life, reduced depressive symptoms, and better self-esteem:

After adjusting for age, gender identity, educational level, partnership status, children at home, and sexual orientation, hormonal therapy was an independent factor in greater self-esteem, less severe depression symptoms, and higher psychological-like dimensions of QoL (psychological well-being and taking care of oneself of the SQUALA).

These studies suggest that the relief of depressive and anxious symptoms I experienced upon starting HRT was not something I only imagined – it is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly observed among many other trans people. Conversely, those trans people who did not receive HRT were noted to have higher levels of these depressive and anxious symptoms. This doesn’t bode well for the notion that trans people should first seek relief from their distress through means other than transitioning; medical transition may be exactly what they need.

This is not a mere “fantasy solution” as described by a handful of bombastic personalities who traffic in media controversy. This is real: for trans people, transitioning works. That doesn’t mean it’s a miracle cure-all – and really, what is? – but it does mean that it helps.

9. How transitioning helped me

For trans people who are depressed, treatment for depression is not a substitute for transitioning – it is an additional treatment for an additional condition. Being treated for depression hasn’t made me feel that my transition is any less necessary, or that my womanhood is any less important; I continue to be far more comfortable than I ever was as a “guy”. If anything, I know that the experience of transitioning has put me in a far better position to handle a challenge like depression.

Before I made the decision to start HRT, I saw it as something to put off for as long as possible: it was a last resort, to be used only in the event that any further physical masculinization became intolerable. Eventually, I took a more proactive stance, realizing that it would be better to avert those changes as early as possible. And when I finally started transitioning, I was astonished that I had been missing out on the mental benefits of HRT for so long.

What I learned was: don’t wait. I didn’t have to spend all that time enduring daily discomfort when there was a treatment right in front of me that could have helped. And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. As soon as I recognized that I was likely experiencing depression, I made an appointment – there was simply no good reason to put it off. The sooner I received treatment, the sooner I could start getting better.

Transitioning taught me what it was like to feel truly good for the first time in my whole life. And this contrast showed me that what came before, the fog of constant unease and dissatisfaction and emotional numbness, was not normal. If I hadn’t transitioned, I might never have learned that there was an alternative – that I didn’t have to feel that way. I wouldn’t have known that this perpetual struggle to cope with my own existence meant that something was wrong.

So when my depression set in, I realized that my search for answers shouldn’t stop at “I guess that’s just how it is”. I knew I had to do something to fix this. As I described it to my doctor: “it feels like before I transitioned.” I have that frame of reference now, with an intimate understanding of just how awful and terrifying that feeling is.

Transitioning, quite simply, improved me. It made me into a more confident, capable, perceptive, outgoing, and overall emotionally well-rounded person. And it made me realize that I matter. At last, I love the person I am, the face I see in the mirror, the mind that can finally work at its full strength. Transition made me care about myself, and now I know that I deserve the best in life. I don’t deserve to suffer.

10. The story so far

Like HRT, I had no idea how this would feel before I started, and I wasn’t sure if it would even make a noticeable difference. But, also like HRT, I’ve now found that it makes a very noticeable difference. By the end of the day, the stress usually hasn’t overwhelmed me, and it fades more quickly rather than sticking around indefinitely. I’m getting more things done, and I’ve even started to write again. I’m just plain happy – or, at least, content.

Before, I’d been struggling to stay above water; now, it’s like sitting in a glass-bottom boat. I can still see and contemplate all the things that had dragged me down before – the sense that I’m worthless, the apparent pointlessness of existence, the question of why I keep going, the knowledge that my body is still wrong – but the dark things are behind a barrier now, and they’ve mostly lost their power to lash out and sink their teeth into me. I could choose to think about them, but I usually don’t; my mind isn’t drawn to them because there’s very little appeal there. Those thoughts rarely arrive uninvited, and they don’t stay for long.

Heather says that my mood is more like that of when I first transitioned. And it does feel like that. I once described HRT as like running my consciousness through a noise removal filter, and my antidepressants seem to have a similar effect. It makes me confident that I’ve made the right decision. It isn’t perfect – I’ve also had a moderate increase in panic attacks, and I’m now being treated for that as well. But, altogether, things are improving. My doctor agrees, and says I can stay on it for as long as I feel it’s helpful. He’ll see me again in three months.

I realize that these are still the early days and anything I say about depression and its treatment still comes from a place of inexperience. There’s certain to be surprises ahead, just as my first excited videos about HRT only offered a snapshot in time that couldn’t predict all the changes that would follow. It could get worse, like dysphoria can get worse. My current medications could eventually stop working, like hormones did. As always, things are going to keep changing, and I won’t know how until it happens.

I still worry that this pattern will keep repeating – that my entire life will just be a constant sprint from one apparent solution to the next, without ever being able to settle on any final answer. But hormones bought me a good year, and hopefully this will too. Transitioning meant checking one thing off the list. Treating my depression is checking off another thing. However long that list may turn out to be, I’m chipping away at it.

There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

Green

Guest post by Trinity Pixie

Green. The color was chosen without much thought, she liked green. It was a pleasant dark shade, and covered the thirsty white walls in only a couple hours. ”Why do we have to move my room so quickly?” she asked, frowning as she continued laying tile on top of the unfinished wooden floor. ”Your sister wants her own room, and it will be more… private for you down here.” Her father didn’t – refused to – look at her as he answered.

Green. She celebrated her first birthday since the move in that room, alone watching movies. The color was made a nice backdrop behind the TV, and made her feel a little less lonely. The room seemed less empty than it would have with bright, white bare walls.

Green. It was what she woke up to instead of sunlight, whenever it was that she slept. The room had no windows, and she had started to lose track of when day and night came and went. She hadn’t seen the sun in a week, though it didn’t seem quite that long.

Green. It surrounded her constantly. She all but stopped leaving her room except when using the bathroom or retrieving meals. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of the sun through a window in those brief moments she left, but she nearly stopped noticing. It was all the same.

Green. It filled her field of vision when she finally opened her eyes after crying. She didn’t feel better, but there were no tears left and no one around to notice if she cried more anyway. The color was soothing and irritating. A prison and a sanctuary at once. Green.


Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

On the Loss of False Male Privilege

Guest post by Trinity Pixie

False Male Privilege is experienced by some trans women prior to transition. It only affects us externally, and only until our presentation changes.

Back in May, I traveled to Women in Secularism 2. It was far from my first time getting somewhere by greyhound bus, but it was my first time taking one while presenting distinctly feminine, as I generally opted to travel while presenting androgynously even after my transition. I arrived at the bus station early, only to find out it was running late, leaving me at the station for well over an hour and a half. I passed the time listening to music and texting, generally trying to ignore the world around me. A young man was sitting on the other side of the station on a laptop when I arrived, and he stayed for about half an hour before putting away his computer and getting up to leave. On his way out he stopped in front of me and started to talk to me. I looked up and took out one headphone, assuming he might be from out of town and asking for directions. Instead he asked me what kind of music I like, and what I was listening to, even asking me to show him some, indicating the earbuds I was using (gross…). Eventually he gave up and left, only to come back a minute later without his things to try again, asking me what concerts I had been to and other small talk before finally giving up again after too many single word answers.

The bus itself was fairly empty, and the ride uneventful apart from being late and nearly missing a connection. I arrived in DC, found my way down to the metro and started reading the machine to figure out how to buy myself a ticket that will get me to my friend’s house. Two men immediately came over, and started explaining the machine to me as if it were something I was incapable of figuring out, including asking such personal information as where I was going and why I was in town, stuff I didn’t think much of giving out at the time. The metro ride itself, to my friend’s house and then to the conference and back everyday, was constantly full of stares. One man, riding with what I assume were his wife and children, spent the entire thirty minutes we were on the train staring very intently at my thighs. Other times I’d occasionally catch whispers between groups of men about the “chick with red hair.”

Arriving back in Pennsylvania, my ride from the bus station to home fell through, and I wouldn’t have another one for about six hours. I decided to walk a couple miles to an area with some shops to pass time. While walking next to the road I noticed an unusual frequency of people honking their horns. For an area with such a small population, and so little traffic it wasn’t usual to hear it every couple minutes as I did. It finally struck me as a single car honked passing by, with no other cars or people in the area: it was all being directed at me. Why was more obvious when a man in a red convertible pulled over to offer me a ride, with an expectant “are you sure?” when I declined.

Not a single thing listed is something I had experienced while male-presenting, and none of it was pleasant. An even worse set of events happened just a couple weeks ago, walking by myself on my way home through a more populated city. I passed by a crowded bar with a few men outside smoking cigarettes. One of them looked at me, his eyes obviously going straight from my breasts to my butt. He said “Hey there, sweetheart” followed by something I couldn’t quite make out. As I got past him I muttered “I’m not your sweetheart” under my breath, quiet enough he likely didn’t hear. I got a few feet away and I heard him yell behind me “Hey! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” I quickened my pace without turning around, and my hand instinctively rested on my knife.

As I got to the corner where I needed to cross, I heard two men coming up behind me laughing, both wearing tuxedos. They looked at me and said “Don’t worry, we’re not going to creep you out… well maybe we’ll creep you out a little” and one stepped towards me reaching his arm out. I backed up putting distance between me and him, and refused to blink until after they crossed. The traffic light cycled once more before I crossed, and made my way to my bike, thankful the rest of the way wasn’t as populated. Riding home, on the empty path I got one more comment, shouted anonymously from some home nearby. “Hey good looking, going for a bike ride?”

In the span of ten minutes, I was persistently harassed in a way I never experienced previous to transition, by people treating me as they would any other woman passing by. I never felt more terrified of the people I passed on the street previous to transition including when a man once pulled a switchblade and demanded my wallet while I was still in university. These people weren’t interested in my purse or my jewelry, they wanted my body, and that made me feel incredibly small.

All else being equal, the levels of harassment from strangers on the street I experienced before and after transition went from a single attempted mugging to nearly every man I pass staring, whispering, or shouting about my body, or even outright threatening me. To treat anyone this way is unacceptable even if it were just one incident, and the reality is far worse than any isolated encounter. The world is teaching me that it does not value my comfort or safety as a woman, and I have little choice but to listen.


Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

Animal dildos: An ethical analysis

Note: This post contains frank discussion of sexual topics. Some content may be of a graphic nature.

Certain sex toy vendors manufacture toys that are based on the penises of animals. While many of these toys are hand-sculpted, some horse-based and dog-based toys are marketed as “life-cast”, meaning they are directly cast from a mold taken of a live animal’s erect penis. Is this process ethical, and is it ethical for consumers to buy from these vendors?

1. The justification, and the objection

One vendor of “lifecast toys” describes the production process as follows:

The casting process takes approximately five minutes, and the animals are always happy to help! No animals are harmed in any way, physically or otherwise.

Their position is that, in the absence of any apparent harm to the animals or visible resistance from these animals, this process should be considered acceptable.

Others disagree, with one blogger writing:

For starters there is the whole thing of *how* they got the animals penis erect, most certainly they probably did not just wait around for it to happen you have to figure there may have been stimulation involving someone sexually touching them which is full stop animal sexual abuse. Secondly they have to put the cast on which may discomfort or confuse the animals.

In response to the supposed compliance or enjoyment by the animals, they add:

An animal may not fight against those things or may even enjoy it but that doesn’t mean they are not being sexually exploited for human gain. In the same way a child cannot consent to sexual acts even if they go along with it an animal cannot.

I’ve spoken with others who likewise contend that, because an animal is not capable of providing informed consent to sex, this sexual stimulation of an animal is therefore sexual abuse. As they see it, just as an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of sex does not mean they are capable of offering meaningful consent, the compliance of these animals with sexual stimulation likewise does not change the fact that they cannot consent to such an act.

The casting process would thus constitute a non-consensual sexual act, making it unethical.

2. Variables in the ethical equation

I do not find it necessary to address the premises, reasoning or conclusion of the argument that this is sexual abuse of an animal. As I see it, that syllogism is a valid (and important) one. So I will not be attempting to dispute any of the following points:

  • Whether these animals suffer harm
  • Whether pleasure translates to consent even when an entity lacks the capacity to provide consent
  • Whether sexual abuse can be ethical

It is also not my intention to derive some concrete, absolute, airtight answer of whether the sex toy production process in question must be considered right or wrong. Instead, I’d prefer to examine situations similar to this process in order to provide a broader picture of how these issues are treated in society. There are a great many more questions that lend an important background to how we understand concepts like “harm”, “consent”, and “sexual abuse”. These words are not merely empty symbols – they have substance, and represent complex ideas. Questions pertaining to this complexity might include:

  • In what situations, other than the production of molds for sex toys, do sexual interactions occur between humans and animals?
  • How commonplace are these situations? Are they largely regarded as acceptable or unacceptable?
  • Why do these sexual interactions occur – what motivates this? Are these motivations seen as justifying such acts?
  • To what extent are people willing to accept the suffering of animals, and violations of animals’ consent, in exchange for their own pleasure and enjoyment?

In this way, I intend to offer a descriptive exploration of existing attitudes toward these questions, rather than a prescriptive and binding moral conclusion of whether it’s okay to stimulate animals sexually in order to sell or use replicas of their genitals as sex toys. I believe this may be more useful than a short, simple and inarguable syllogism. By equipping people with a wider array of information relevant to this question, we can provide them with a somewhat more expansive ethical equation into which they can input their own personal values. They can derive, not a singular right answer for everyone, but an individual answer which is more solidly rooted in a better understanding of the related issues.

3. Disregard for the consent of animals in non-sexual contexts

Livestock farms are businesses: they are motivated to maximize their production while minimizing the expenses they incur. Because this business involves using live animals as a source of meat, milk, eggs, or other products, and providing the resources necessary to ensure humane treatment may come at additional expense, optimizing for profitability can lead to compromising the welfare of these animals. Such compromises occur as a part of routine, widely accepted industrial farming practices. The commonplace treatment of animals by large-scale farming operations includes:

The lack of adequate space for broiler chickens. Broiler chickens – birds raised for their meat – are densely packed into production houses, with around 20,000 animals occupying a space roughly the size of a football field. Each bird therefore has only about as much space as a single sheet of paper. The birds unavoidably walk around in their own accumulated excrement, and the breakdown of this waste produces unsafe air levels of ammonia. The presence of these contaminants leads to irritation, lesions and ulcers on the birds’ legs and feet. Specialists within the industry have written:

[L]imiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment?

The close confinement of egg-laying hens. In the United States, 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages for most of their lives. Five to ten birds are placed in a cage about the size of a large file drawer, without room to extend their wings fully or engage in normal behaviors such as nest-building, perching at night, or foraging for food. Due to the enclosed space, the hens have no room to exercise, resulting in bone weakness.

Battery hens in a cage.

Battery hens in a cage.

The close quarters can also lead to cannibalism, something which farms attempt to mitigate by “de-beaking” the hens. Up to two-thirds of a bird’s beak is removed without anesthesia, often using a hot blade that causes painful damage to this nerve-rich area.

A de-beaked chicken.

A de-beaked chicken.

The long-term caging of pregnant pigs. Breeding sows are commonly isolated during their pregnancy to prevent fighting between sows, which could cause injury or death. 60-70% of breeding sows in the United States are kept in individual gestation crates that are about two feet wide and seven feet long. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig, leaving sows unable to turn around, lie on their sides, or walk more than a step forward or backward. Slats in the floor allow waste to fall through, and living above a pit of urine and excrement results in respiratory disease from exposure to high levels of ammonia.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows are confined to these cages for the duration of their pregnancy – about 4 months. They typically birth at least two litters per year, and are immediately re-impregnated after their piglets are weaned. Most of a sow’s life will be spent nearly immobilized in a crate. Pig gestation crates are now banned in the European Union, and nine US states have enacted similar bans. In defense of this practice, National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner stated:

So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. … The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.

Suppose we grant that a horse or dog cannot consent to being sexually stimulated or having a mold taken of their genitals. In comparison, it also seems unlikely that a pig or chicken could consent to being locked in a small crate for months, having a part of their beak cut off without anesthesia, or suffering foot ulcers from constantly walking around in their own waste.

Yet these practices are nevertheless carried out as cost-saving measures. Treating animals this way is seen as less expensive than providing larger facilities and allowing for the possible loss of some sows, piglets and hens that would come with giving them greater space to move around. Farmers benefit from these practices because they can manufacture a greater quantity of their product at a reduced cost. Consumers benefit from being able to purchase pork, chicken or eggs at a lower price.

Many people give little thought to this inhumane treatment of the animals that produce their food, or if they do, they ultimately find this to be an acceptable tradeoff. And they reaffirm this acceptance in their everyday food choices, far more frequently than anyone purchases specialty animal dildos.

4. Violations of the sexual consent of animals for breeding purposes

Domesticated animals are the subject of selective breeding to optimize for whichever traits may be desired. People decide to retain and emphasize certain traits of these animals, while getting rid of unwanted ones. This is done by choosing animals that express a given pattern of traits, and forcing them to reproduce. The practices surrounding such breeding efforts can involve close contact with the animals’ reproductive organs. Specifically:

Breeding soundness exams, semen collection and artificial insemination of cattle. Cattle may be bred with the aim of producing higher quality beef or greater quantities of milk. As one rancher described a particularly valuable bull named Revelation:

… Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.

A breeding soundness exam is often conducted to ensure that a bull will be a worthwhile purchase and that it will be able to produce offspring:

Bulls that do not settle their share of cows early in the breeding season contribute to reproductive inefficiency. … Bulls are selected for their genetic potential to improve the cow herd. It is economically important that all bulls are fertile.

Such exams include close study of the bull’s genitals and other organs:

The internal organs can be examined by rectal palpation while the bull is restrained. The vesicular glands, ampullae, and prostate should also be examined for evidence of inflammation, adhesions, or fibrosis. Furthermore, the spermatic cord, scrotum, testicles, and epididymides need to be examined for evidence of abscesses, injury, frost bite damage, or tumors. …

The penis and sheath should be examined for any sores, lacerations, abscesses, scar tissue, hair rings, warts, or adhesions.

A central component of the exam is acquiring a semen sample from the bull in order to evaluate its fertility. This requires that the bull be stimulated to arousal and ejaculation. Semen can be collected by way of an artificial vagina, “a hard tubular casing with a rubber inner liner filled with warm water to stimulate the bull’s penis via temperature and pressure”. However, a sample is “most often collected via electroejaculation”. Electroejaculation is conducted as follows:

The electroejaculator consists of a rectal probe that has a series of linear banded electrodes connected to a variable current and voltage source. The bull is restrained in a chute, the rectum is emptied, and the entire lubricated probe is inserted rectally with the electrodes oriented ventrally. A hand-operated rheostat permits intermittent pulses of current to be given as the voltage is gradually increased. The response varies considerably, but it is common to use 2- to 4-sec pulses repeated at 5- to 7-sec intervals. After a variable number of such stimulations, erection and protrusion of the penis may be seen, followed by a flow of seminal fluid, or the bull may ejaculate into the sheath without protruding the penis.

Electroejaculation is known to be uncomfortable or painful for bulls:

…electroejaculation is associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and the strength of the muscular contractions induced by electroejaculation suggests that the bull experiences pain and distress. Compared to controls, bulls subjected to this procedure vocalize more frequently, which is considered an indicator of stress and pain.

However, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association maintains that electroejaculation of bulls is an acceptable practice.

Electroejaculator devices.

Electroejaculator devices for bulls.

The process of using bull semen to inseminate cows is similarly invasive. One rancher was praised for his skill in this area:

“He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.

Breeding soundness exams and semen collection of stallions. As with cattle, horses have been domesticated into various specialized breeds which serve different purposes. Desired traits can include their endurance, strength, speed, skill at working with livestock, or performance at racing and show jumping.

Stallions are prized for their ability to produce a high number of quality offspring, offering a better value to horse breeders. A very fertile and healthy stallion can be a good investment, while a stallion with poor fertility may be of little use. For this reason, they are subject to comprehensive breeding soundness exams similar to those of bulls:

Veterinarians should also evaluate the stallion’s reproductive anatomy during a breeding soundness examination. Threlfall explained that the penis must be able to retract fully, and there should be no abnormal swellings or enlargements of the genitalia. All aspects of the reproductive tract–including the penis, scrotum, and testicles–should be palpated for abnormalities, he added.

Stallions may exhibit resistance to such examinations:

…especially during this portion of the exam, it’s important to stay safe as some stallions will bite, kick, or strike when their reproductive tract is palpated. Twitch or tranquilize the horse if necessary to maintain safety.

Semen collection from stallions can also involve the use of an artificial vagina. Workers apply the artificial vagina (AV) in this manner:

The stallion’s penis should be deflected into the AV, not grasped, because some stallions take offense to being grasped. The AV should be held firmly for the stallion to thrust against and should be at the same angle as the mare’s vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the AV should be lowered to allow the semen to run into the collection bottle.

Applying an artificial vagina can be a complicated task involving multiple workers to ensure (their own) safety:

All the handlers should be on left side and everyone is advised to pull to the left if there is a problem. The entire collection has to be a choreographed effort by everyone involved in order to get a sample and keep everyone safe. Approach the mare at an angle and allow the stallion to mount the mare. Let the stallion thrust and guide or allow the stallion to insert his penis into the AV. Gently touch the ventral penis and feel the urethra for the ejaculatory pulses. Others can watch for the flagging of the tail that indicates ejaculation.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

However, collection can also be accomplished by “manual stimulation”, and the training of stallions to accept this stimulation:

You can attempt manual massage of the erect penis with moist towels while the stallion is standing or while he is mounting. Experimentally it took about 1 1/2 training sessions to train stallions to do this.

Semen collection and artificial insemination of dogs. Over 150 distinct breeds of domesticated dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club. While some of these breeds serve working roles – such as assisting disabled people, herding livestock, retrieving prey for hunters, tracking scents, or subduing criminals – many dogs are no more than companions for most people.

To ensure conformance to a given breed standard, people select which individual dogs are bred together. As with cattle and horses, semen collection is part of a typical breeding soundness exam, and artificial insemination using collected semen can allow for vastly more instances of impregnation than a single male dog would be capable of without assistance. The collection process is similar to that of bulls and stallions:

Canine semen is collected using digital pressure and massage. … Collecting semen from dogs is not difficult, but like many things, is much easier after you’ve done it a time or two. The basic process is conducted in the following series of steps:

  • Grasp the prepuce and pull/push it back to expose the tip of the penis.
  • Slide the collection cone over the protruding penis and slide it over the penis, pushing the prepuce back over of the bulbis glandis …
  • Lock your fingers in a ring around the penis, essentially holding the bulbis glandis inside your fist.
  • Apply pressure with forward and backward movement; in most cases, the male will begin to thrust back and forth.
  • Watch for semen to flow in the collection tube. Most dogs stop thrusting as they begin to ejaculate.

Transcervical insemination is one of the less invasive methods of artificially inseminating dogs:

The transcervical insemination (TCI) is performed with the bitch in a standing position. No sedation nor anesthesia is required. A fiber optic cystourethoscope is used vaginally to visualize the opening to the cervix. A flexible catheter is maneuvered through the cervix into the uterus. …The semen is gently pushed through the catheter from a syringe.

A more invasive method involves surgery:

A surgical insemination is a minor surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to inject the semen directly into the uterus. … A bitch’s greatest chance of conception is by having a surgical semen implant. …

A 2-3 inch incision is made on the abdomen through the skin and underlying muscle. The uterus is isolated and evaluated. The semen, whether fresh collected, fresh chilled or frozen, is inseminated though a small hypodermic needle into the uterus. The veterinary surgeon can see and feel the uterus fill as the semen is deposited.

The procedures involved in the breeding of these animals are, at times, essentially identical to the stimulation of horses and dogs performed in the course of producing a mold of their genitals. In many cases, the breeding-related practices go far beyond that and are substantially more invasive. Yet these practices are well-established and accepted among breeders, simply for the purpose of avoiding any expenses or inefficiencies that would come with having less-than-optimal animals among their breeding population.

The general attitude appears to be one of regarding animals as little more than objects, from which semen can be extracted and into which it can be deposited at will, by whatever means people find to be most effective. So it should come as no surprise that, in the drive to obtain desired traits with great efficiency, the consent of these animals is treated as broadly irrelevant.

5. Human needs: Animal exploitation as a norm

This widespread inhumane treatment and disregard for the consent of animals is done in the service of certain human needs. People may need animal products for food, draft animals for working purposes, or dogs for detecting explosives or other roles. But the extent to which these needs justify certain treatment of animals is, of course, debatable. Ardent advocates of animal rights might contend that nothing justifies forcing animals into any working roles. Vegetarians or vegans may feel it’s not acceptable to use animals as a food source at all. Even people who do consume animal products may choose to avoid food sourced from crated pigs or chickens.

One way or another, that ethical line is drawn in a certain place depending on a person’s values. And when it comes to the needs these animals serve, it can be unclear just how necessary some of these roles are. Sure, people require food, but does that mean people need to eat prime rather than choice cuts of beef? Horses may be the best method of transportation for certain purposes – but does anyone actually need a horse for dressage, a sport described as “horse ballet”? Sled dogs may be needed in some areas, but does a person ever really need a Chihuahua? What needs are some of these animals serving that are so crucial, it justifies disregarding their consent? And what makes the desire to own a replica of a dog’s erection for use as a sex toy any less legitimate than the desire to own a pug as a companion animal?

Many of the practices involved in keeping and breeding these animals would also fail the “child test”, badly. As others have argued, an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of a sexual act does not mean they are therefore capable of meaningful consent to this act. Suppose someone were to argue that a child is completely okay with being kept in a crate too small for them to turn around, or that a child actually enjoys having a device called an “artificial vagina” applied to them, and that therefore the child consents to this treatment. Such claims would be considered monstrous and appalling.

Yet most people who eat pork, drink milk, and own dogs do not seem to apply the “child test” as a standard of ethical acceptability. They are largely content to tolerate at least some of these practices in the course of the breeding and raising of animals. And if they do tolerate this, it seems unavoidably inconsistent and arbitrary to accept practices such as:

  • Providing an individual chicken with no more living space than a sheet of paper
  • Forcing chickens to walk around in piles of excrement and breathe ammonia-rich air
  • Keeping a chicken in a cage so small that it cannot extend its wings
  • Removing a portion of a chicken’s beak using a hot blade, without painkillers
  • Keeping a pregnant pig in a cage so small that it cannot walk or turn around, for several months
  • Restraining a bull to examine its reproductive organs by rectal palpation
  • Inserting a rectal probe into a bull and repeatedly applying a painful electrical current until ejaculation occurs
  • Inserting one’s entire arm into a cow in order to deposit semen onto its cervix
  • Tranquilizing a stallion to prevent it from biting or kicking during a genital examination
  • Guiding a stallion’s penis into an artificial vagina and holding the device in place until the stallion ejaculates
  • Stimulating a stallion by massaging its penis with moist towels
  • Placing a “collection cone” onto a dog’s penis
  • Manually stimulating a dog’s penis to obtain its semen
  • Introducing semen via a catheter inserted through a dog’s cervix and into its uterus, without sedation
  • Partially removing a dog’s uterus from its body via surgery, and injecting semen into it

While rejecting practices such as:

  • Stimulating a horse or dog to arousal in order to take a mold of its genitals

What sort of ethical standard would allow for the former practices while soundly rejecting the latter? In terms of potential harm to animals or violations of their consent, how would one go about isolating the act of creating animal-based sex toy molds as any more harmful or violative than the rest of these commonplace practices? What marks this case as unique?

I believe such a standard is best explained as the product of a sexual taboo. Harm and violation of animals is often uncritically accepted when it is in furtherance of:

  • The fiscal enjoyment of farmers and breeders who reduce expenses and increase output by neglecting to provide humane facilities for their livestock and avoiding the purchase and upkeep of infertile animals
  • The competitive enjoyment of farmers and breeders who are able to produce higher quality animal products
  • The culinary enjoyment of consumers who now have access to “off the charts” marbled beef and “breathtaking” rib-eyes
  • The sporting enjoyment of athletes (and spectators) who use horses for racing, show jumping, or dressage events
  • The personal enjoyment of people who keep dogs for companionship

Yet this harm and violation is seen to reach a wholly unacceptable level when it occurs in the pursuit of:

  • The sexual enjoyment of people who would like to use sex toys cast from a mold of a horse or dog penis

It seems that this sexual motive is seen as being more trivial, more frivolous, and less justifiable than these non-sexual motives. But an identical act, the stimulation of an animal’s genitals to arousal, takes place in both the sexual case and the breeding case. The harm to the animal, and disregard for its consent, is neither exacerbated nor diminished simply by the intentions of the person performing the act. If someone does not consider the argument from harm and lack of consent to be sufficient to condemn these selective breeding practices, then the argument also does not succeed in condemning the sex toy production process.

It may be the case that nobody truly needs such a dog toy. But if so, they do not need a toy dog, either.

Trans panels at FtBCon 2!

This year’s FtBCon, running from January 31 through February 2, will have three trans panels on awesomely diverse topics. These include:

Between A Rock And…: Non-Binary Gender in Atheism (February 1, 11 AM – 12 PM)

When women started talking about women’s issues in the skeptic and atheist movements, it created an incredibly charged atmosphere within those communities. A couple years later, we’re still having this heated discussion. In talking about gender-related issues, how well do people within the community address trans* people, particularly non-binary-identified individuals? Is there an overlap between misogynistic attitudes and transphobic attitudes? Is non-binary erasure a problem for the atheist/skeptic communities? What place do binary and non-binary trans* people have within the community, and what are their contributions?

Trans* Representation in Video Games (February 1, 8 PM – 9 PM)

The few transgender characters in the video gaming world are problematic, if not outright dehumanizing. But are there representatives that aren’t complete stereotypes or foils for transphobic narratives?

Trans Men and Trans Masculinity (February 2, 1 PM – 2 PM)

The transgender male and trans masculine community includes people with a wide range of identities and lived experiences. Panelists will answer some common myths and questions and share their lived experiences. We will also address some of the similarities and differences between our experiences and those of trans women and cisgender people.

These panels feature some of the brightest minds in the trans and secular communities. Be there!

Out now: Hacking Transition, by Kristin

My colleague and good friend Kristin has just released her e-book, Hacking Transition: Tips and Tricks for Making Transition Easier. The book includes advice on all aspects of transitioning for trans women, from a a position of firsthand experience. Kristin says:

Over the last several years I have been through a lot with my transition, and learned a great deal. I’ve done many things well, and many things I wish I could do over. Along the way I’ve recorded all of the knowledge I have accumulated into an E-Book. Now that my transition is complete, I don’t want everything I have learned to go to waste, so I’m selling it in the form of an E-Book.

The book is on sale for just $7.99, with additional bonus packages available as well. Kristin is a great writer and visionary, and I highly recommend it.

Semi-hiatus type thing

I’m working through some stuff right now and I’ve needed to pare down my obligations as much as possible. Things like blogging didn’t make the cut, sadly. It’ll probably be pretty sparse around here until other things are taken care of and I have the energy and motivation to get back into it. If anything really important comes up, you can reach me at zjemptv@gmail.com. I’ll see you around.

How Small Is Your Dick? Some “uncomfortable wiener questions” for Tim Graham

Last week, actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show to discuss their careers and their experiences as trans women. What could’ve been an otherwise respectful interview instead took a turn for the incredibly inappropriate as Couric openly and shamelessly asked Carrera about whether her “private parts” are “different now”. Carrera, who was just not having any of that, responded perfectly: “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s really personal.” Cox later took the opportunity to explain how focusing on “the genitalia question”, as Couric phrased it, ignores the very serious issues of homelessness, discrimination, economic injustice and violence faced by trans women. Both Carrera’s and Cox’s segments are worth watching for their fantastic responses, if you can handle the severe awkwardness of the situation.

Naturally, the conservative NewsBusters.org – a Media Research Center outlet billing itself as “exposing & combating liberal media bias” – doesn’t really see a problem with any of this. It seems there’s only one thing with the power to unite the MRC and Katie Couric, whom the MRC previously bestowed with the singular honor of “Worst Reporter in the History of Man”. This is, of course, a mutual and overwhelming sense of entitlement to trans women’s bodies.

Tim Graham, the MRC’s director of media analysis, upholds the standard of excellence in news coverage for which conservative media are famous: vacuous commentary, lazy misgendering, and literal toilet humor. In his post, titled “Katie Couric Upsets the ‘Trans Women’ By Asking Those Uncomfortable Wiener Questions” (why the scare quotes? Is he calling us cis?), Graham spends a few short paragraphs putting in the least effort possible even for a transphobe. Meandering from calling Carrera and Cox “men” who “dress like women” (clearly Couric was actually inquiring about the surgery they’ve had done on their wardrobes), to suggesting questions about genitals (or “the bulge issue”, as he so cis-ly put it) were “inevitable”, to pondering whether it’s “possible to pretend to be a woman and use a urinal”, he ultimately projects an air of befuddlement that only comes from people who’ve never had to think about this in their lives: how could you possibly see anything wrong with asking trans women which genitals they have on national television?

Indeed, what’s the big deal? It’s just genitals, right? No need to get uncomfortable over a few wiener questions. Yet Graham would do well to ask his colleagues at NewsBusters the same thing. Since 2010, his fellow writers have published numerous articles expressing their outrage at the Transportation Security Administration’s updated screening procedures – namely, the full-body scanners that reveal the shape of passengers’ bodies, and the “extended pat-downs” which can include contact with the breasts, buttocks and genitals. Just look at all these very upset stories:

Oh, and an article from just last month in which Graham himself described the TSA as “well-known for being too aggressive in its body searches”.

So, let’s put it all together: When some bored TSA agent in another room merely looks at the shadow of an angry cis white guy’s “junk”, or checks whether that’s a firecracker in his pants or he’s just happy to see them – for the purpose of potentially preventing hundreds or thousands of deaths – it’s “invasive”. It’s “overboard”. It’s a “civil liberties abuse”. It’s “too aggressive”.

When trans women of color are asked point-blank about their genitals in front of a daytime audience of millions, for no reason other than prurient and entitled curiosity, it’s “inevitable”.

Inevitable. Inevitable that trans women’s bodies will be treated as public property and denied even basic human dignity. Inevitable that they’ll be gleefully dissected in detail for the enjoyment of cis people – or, as Laverne Cox pointed out, simply murdered in the streets if that’s what cis people want.

As long as no one touches Tim Graham’s junk.

But those “uncomfortable wiener questions” are still on the table, right? That’s totally an appropriate topic for everyday conversation. Has anyone gotten around to asking Tim Graham if he has a penis? Or is that “bulge” just a packer? Are those his original genitals or did he have them reconstructed? Does he have to sit down to pee, or can he use urinals like a real woman? Is he a grower or a shower? How big does it get? How does he have sex – like, how does that work? Does he have to take medication or does he have one of those erectile implants?

Most crucially: Can we all make sure that he’s forced to answer these very important questions every single time he decides to share his valuable opinions and experiences as a straight cis man?

Penis Impossible: The most baffling transphobia ever

Purely out of necessity, people can be very creative when trying to invent real-world evidence – rather than merely abstract objections – to justify hating and fearing trans people. Some of this transphobia relies on arguments about scenarios that are theoretically possible, but do not actually occur: things like cis boys passing themselves off as trans girls to peep in locker rooms, something which happens only in the imagination of Bill O’Reilly. Other transphobia relies on citing situations that probably do occur sometimes, and then using them in arguments that are plainly illogical – like a cis man picking up a trans woman he finds attractive while assuming she’s cis, having a mutually enjoyable tryst with her, and later discovering she’s trans and retroactively declaring this was now a singularly horrific event which was wholly her fault.

Occasionally, we get the chance to see transphobes wander just a little too far into the realm of fantasy. I don’t know how I managed to miss this, but last year, transphobic radical feminist “Ann Tagonist” took the typical disclosure-and-deception sex trope and ran with it – directly into oncoming traffic. Tagonist’s breathtaking new argument (I’ve honestly never seen this one before) is structured as follows:

  1. Cis women can be at risk of becoming pregnant from sex.
  2. Cis lesbians might assume that limiting themselves to lesbian sex means they are not at risk of pregnancy.
  3. If a cis woman sleeps with a trans woman, the cis woman could be at risk of becoming pregnant.
  4. If the cis woman in question has not been informed that her partner is a trans woman rather than a cis woman, she might not realize she needs to take steps to mitigate her risk of pregnancy.
  5. Therefore, trans people should be obligated to disclose that they are trans before having sex.

Before getting into this, I’ll give you a moment to locate the exact point where this falls apart. (Hint: somewhere between 3 and 4.)

Tagonist first makes reference to a real-life case that can’t possibly support this line of argument:

The Scottish Transgender Alliance has filed a petition with the Home Office demanding that Scotland’s courts stop jailing people who lie about their trans status to their sexual partners. Over 2,400 people put their names on this thing. The Scottish Transgender Alliance argues that a person’s “gender history” is their own personal medical history and they are not obliged to disclose anything to do with it.

This petition followed the conviction of Chris Wilson, a trans man who did not disclose that he was trans before dating two women. Trans men (men who were assigned female at birth) lack the capacity to produce sperm, no matter which procedures or surgeries they may have had. There is no way in which the risk of pregnancy is relevant to trans men having sex with cis women – not even in theory.

Undeterred by this particular fact, or any facts at all, Tagonist goes on to lay out her concerns:

Lesbians, when they consent to sex with female partners, are doing so on the understanding that they are definitely not going to become pregnant. … If a lesbian ‘consents’ to sex with someone she thinks is reproductively female but that person is actually reproductively male, that lesbian has not given informed consent. She has not been given enough information with which to make her decision. Women need to know the reproductive capacity of a potential sex partner so they can decide not to engage, or take steps to protect themselves. …

“Gender history” is irrelevant here. We need to know the sex of the people we’re having sex with because, hello, pregnancy. Legislation which allows males to lie about their sex in order to obtain consent contravenes women’s bodily autonomy.

Rarely do I encounter transphobia rooted in something that is not just improbable, not just illogical, but in fact literally impossible. If we were to make a decision tree of every different way in which such a hypothetical event could proceed, there would be no possible endpoint where the cis woman partner would both experience an event leading to pregnancy and remain unaware that her partner is actually a trans woman and not a cis woman.

In order for it to be possible for a trans woman to impregnate a cis woman during sex, that trans woman must still be capable of producing sperm. This would no longer be the case following vaginoplasty (commonly known as “The Surgery”), during which the testes are discarded. A trans woman with a vagina has no remaining tissue in her body that can produce sperm – ever.

The only way in which a trans woman could conceal the fact that she’s trans during any kind of genital-genital contact is if she has a vagina, and thus can’t produce sperm. After all, the entire trope of trans women not disclosing prior to sex relies on a scenario where our partners can have sex with us and still not be able to tell we’re trans. Conversely, the only way in which a trans woman could impregnate a cis woman during sex is if she still has a penis (and testes), the presence of which can be assumed to disclose one’s transness inherently. Yet Tagonist seems to be under the impression that these two mutually exclusive possibilities could happen concurrently – that a cis woman could have sex with a trans woman without knowing she’s trans, and become pregnant due to this.

I struggle to comprehend the reasoning behind this. Perhaps Tagonist believes that cis women can become pregnant from exposure to trans women’s vaginas, something which is physically impossible. One might as well fret about the potential risk of virginal conception (and any unintended deities that may result). Or maybe she believes cis women are so totally ignorant that they would not recognize the presence of a woman’s penis as an indication that this woman is indeed trans – which is contradicted by her assumption that cis women will have enough baseline knowledge of trans issues that they will know how to act on this information.

Or perhaps she imagines that a cis woman could somehow remain completely unaware that a real, live human penis is present in close range of her genitals – before, during, and after a sexual act that could lead to pregnancy. Maybe, in Tagonist’s world, trans women are capable of flawlessly concealing their own penises even during penetration itself, like the sexual equivalent of the hallway scene from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Which totally happens all the time, what with our state-of-the-art Invisible Stealth Parts – the latest craze that’s sweeping Thailand! I mean, how else would such a thing be possible? Have I missed something here, like time-traveling trans sperm? I’m genuinely curious as to how this whole line of argument coalesced in her mind. For all I know, this is something she’s dealt with before, in which case she should strongly consider taking up Randi on his $1 million paranormal challenge. Otherwise, her ramblings about “informed consent” in regards to trans people having sex ring rather hollow, given that she doesn’t seem to be informed about much in this area at all.