Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nOver the years, the atheist movement has split asunder over the issue of whether social justice activism has a place within the atheist movement. Recently, a post on The Daily Banter caused a stir of conversation about it the likes of which I haven’t seen since Atheism+ started happening. (Though this one was markedly less impressive.)

The piece, written by Michael Luciano and entitled “Atheists Don’t Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing,” basically argues that social justice is something you do with your liberal hat on and not your atheist hat. He points out that all the word “atheist” means is that you don’t believe in gods and not necessarily that you support “liberal politics.”

It seems apparent to me, first of all, that atheism is a social justice issue. Heina points out in their post “Top Five Arguments the Atheist Agenda Doesn’t Have the Right to Use” that many things the atheist movement tries to fight for are social issues. A lot of atheist activism focuses on equal representation in and by the government and normalizing atheism, the goals of which are to eliminate the ways atheists are harmed as a minority. Seems pretty social justicey to moi. [Read more…]

I hate the his/her side of the bed meme

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nYou heard me. It’s obnoxious. (Not just because of the inherent cissexism/heterosexism.)

If you’re not familiar with what I’m referring to, it’s a relatively common joke that (in a cishet relationship) women take up most of the bed while the dudes are relegated to a small sliver at the edge.

I couldn’t find exactly the one that ignited this train of thought for me, since it was someone else’s random Facebook post from months ago, but here are a couple examples of what I mean:

what [Read more…]

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.

Lessons from the first FtBCon trans panel

Our inaugural FtBCon transgender panel was fantastic in almost every way. 200 or more people saw it live, thousands more watched the recorded session on YouTube, our panelists had a great time, and many viewers had their questions answered at length. I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Trinity, Autumn, Ellen and Amy for their participation, my fellow FTBers for putting the con together and making it happen, and all of our viewers for their interest.

Given the smashing success of the first panel, we’ve committed to doing a second in the series early next year. Crucially, our experience with this initial panel has illuminated a number of areas we must work on to make the next one even better. First and foremost:


Again: DIVERSITY. This year’s panel was white. White white white white white. It was also all-female, giving the false impression that “trans people” means “trans women”. Furthermore, all of us were from the US. We might as well have called it White Lady Chat Featuring Five White Ladies. This is exclusively my fault: in assembling this panel on short notice, I drew heavily on my immediate social circle, which does not reflect the vast and extensive diversity the event deserved. As a result, this year’s panel failed to include the voices and unique concerns of trans women of color, trans men and trans masculine people, genderqueer and non-binary people, trans people outside the US, and intersex people. The next panel will not occur unless I can ensure the presence and representation of all of these important voices.

Planning ahead

Again, this panel came together at the last minute, and we were left without sufficient time to gather a broader spectrum of panelists or assemble a more detailed agenda of topics to discuss. The event also could have used more extensive promotion and publicity in the weeks prior. By planning the next panel well in advance, we hope to invite some of the leading speakers in the field as well as everyday trans people from around the world, as well as develop a more structured format for the discussion.

Technical difficulties, please stand by

Most of us only familiarized ourselves with the technical aspects of Google Hangouts less than an hour before the event began, which resulted in a brief delay and some confusion. This is another Planning Ahead thing. Next time, we’ll make sure that all participants have their equipment set up properly, and that they have a solid grasp of the format long before the event airs.

Working overtime

I first scheduled the panel to last for one hour, and this turned out to be a mistake. Allotting just one hour to discuss trans people as a subject is like allotting just one hour to discuss the entirety of science, medicine, society, sexuality, and feminism. Obviously, at least two hours are required for that, and we ultimately had to extend the panel by another hour in order to cover trans topics adequately. Our next panel will likely be scheduled to last two hours, giving us the time we need to address the wide variety of subjects involved in trans issues.

YouTube comments considered harmful

Not having used Google Hangouts before, I was unaware of what would happen when the event began streaming live on my personal YouTube channel. This interacted badly with the fact that my channel has 40,500 subscribers and countless more casual viewers. Because this is YouTube, our panelists were exposed to the worst sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general hate that the internet is capable of. One issue in particular was the number of comments where people felt it was necessary to offer their uninvited opinions on how ugly we were, how pretty we were, or how pretty or ugly we were compared to our fellow panelists. Having their looks positively or negatively judged, or compared to others, is a common experience for women who speak in public forums. For trans people, this also often becomes a referendum on the very legitimacy of our genders. Such comments are never acceptable – transphobia, homophobia, misogyny and hate are never acceptable. During the next event, these comments will either be actively and strictly moderated, or switched off entirely. In either case, the panel must remain a safe place for its participants.

Bathroom breaks

One word: Spironolactone. No way around it, really.

By making the effort to enact all of these improvements, I’m confident that the next trans panel will be an event of unsurpassed quality. I hope that all of you will tune in once again – we promise it’ll be worth your time.

The view from nowhere on female genital mutilation

Following the Lisa Wade/Hastings Center/FGM controversy, Heina of Skepchick made note of a certain prevalent attitude toward female genital mutilation:

Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.

Many average people who oppose practices such as FGM probably do hold the very simplistic and ignorant view that those who engage in such acts are innately and completely evil, and doing it purely for the sake of being bad because that’s just how they are. This is obviously a neglect to consider certain universal aspects of the human condition. People who think this way don’t attribute their own ethical failures or wrongdoing to an inherent “evil” nature on their part – but the others, the ones who do things like mutilate the genitals of their children, are different from them. They must be “monsters”, because what person like themselves could do such a thing? The undercurrents of prejudice in this mindset are clear and unavoidable, and this does nothing to help them understand why a disturbing practice like FGM happens.

At the same time, the reaction of “who would do that to children?” may not always be wholly rooted in the assumption that the people who do this to children are incomprehensible, inhuman monsters who are totally unrelatable. Rather than concluding that these people are simply not like us, the discomfort and bafflement may arise from the realization that they are like us, they are people too – that in another life, we could have been them.

While it’s unnerving to think – mistakenly – that the world contains people who are little more than evil automatons that do awful things like FGM, it may be even more unnerving to accept the reality that these are average people who have somehow reached a point where they consider FGM to be morally good and the right thing to do for their children. The horror at the sheer moral difference between us and their beliefs and practices is only amplified when considered in the context of the sameness of our and their human nature. People don’t have to be fundamentally dissimilar, or inhuman, to do this. They just have to believe it’s right, and they just have to want to do the right thing. No different from us.

Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are. What’s beyond the naive view that FGM practitioners are purely monstrous is even more outrageous, saddening and tragic: not only does something as brutal as FGM occur, but it occurs because good and honest people who care about their children have come to believe that it is right.

It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to dehumanize people, or hold them any less than fully accountable for their actions. But it’s also crucial that this recognition of the universal human capability for baffling, horrifying choices in the name of “good” is not used as an excuse to treat all beliefs and practices as though they were the same. The understanding of “you might do the same thing if you were in their position, because they believe it’s good” has at times been construed to mean that we have no possible grounds to criticize anyone for what they do, as all behaviors are somehow created equal – and whether a thing is right or wrong hinges on nothing but how its practitioners feel about it. It’s wrong to us, but it’s right to them, so who are we to judge?

This is somewhat like the “view from nowhere” in journalism, where certain issues are misleadingly presented as though every point of view is equal in its validity, even though some of them may not be valid at all. What is right? What is wrong? It’s not our place to say. There are only things that happen, from which we must detach any personal judgment.

The report on FGM by the Hastings Center, issued for the alleged purpose of correcting media coverage of the practice, promoted this perspective. They make clear their intentions to exclude any viewpoint on whether FGM is right or wrong – they just wanted to present some facts. That’s all.

The problem is that their presentation of certain facts served to minimize the impact of FGM in just about every way possible: suggesting that journalists should be less “hyperbolic” about infibulation as it occurs among “only” 10% of girls who undergo FGM, implying that sexual functioning is not affected by means of blatantly equivocating statements about how women who haven’t undergone FGM also sometimes report dysfunction, claiming that complications from the practice are “sensationalized” and “infrequent”, lazily dismissing the possibility that FGM results from patriarchal society or male beauty standards by merely noting that women are involved in the practice and largely approve of it, and offering red herrings about how these societies also circumcise boys.

In their pursuit of neutrality toward viewpoints on FGM, disconnected from any judgment of the practice, they ended up inadvertently promoting the view that FGM isn’t all that bad. It does not matter whether they did this on purpose or not. That was the end result regardless of their intentions: they produced a report that downplays the effects of FGM. That’s the problem with the view from nowhere. The appearance of neutrality can disguise the fact that something is not neutral and not accurate in how it depicts a certain issue.

The hands-off stance toward judging the practices of people who believe differently from us functions similarly. When people assert that it’s not our place to decide whether FGM is right or wrong, this actually means allowing FGM to proceed unhindered. Those who hold this view may deceive themselves into thinking they’re being neutral, but the result is not neutral at all. And just because we might indeed endorse the practices of another group if we believed what they believe, that doesn’t mean they can’t actually be wrong for doing it, and it doesn’t mean we can’t actually be right to disapprove of it.

I’m glad that many people strongly disapprove of FGM and want to see it ended. I’m not so glad when some of these people promote what seems to be an impotent version of this belief that’s stripped of any force to create meaningful change. Heina says:

How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.

…In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.

To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM.

Frankly, how anyone hopes to bring about change with this approach is beyond me. If it’s pointless and unproductive to say that FGM is simply wrong, if infibulation ought not be that much of a concern due to its relative rarity (suggesting that other types of FGM may be even less of a concern), if its effects on women are minimal if not completely absent, then why should we want to end FGM, anyway?

Why even be concerned with how unhelpful certain approaches are, if FGM just isn’t that big of a deal? How should we bring about change when we’re deprived of any compelling reason to oppose FGM? Heina notes:

To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.

Recognizing that lasting and effective change follows from genuine changes in the beliefs of the group in question, rather than restrictions suddenly imposed from outside, is definitely important. But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable? What can we tell them to make them realize that FGM is unacceptable? What reason would they have to change their minds, their culture, when we’ve decided that saying it’s wrong is too aggressive and that the harms it causes aren’t all that significant or important?

Again, while it’s wonderful that many people want FGM to be ended, it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own. I don’t doubt that they would like to see FGM abolished. I do question the specifics of how exactly they believe this can happen. What does it mean to believe that we should oppose FGM, while also insisting that this belief should in no way impact its practitioners? The truly razor-thin line here is the one that people must walk in order to believe that FGM should be done away with, while avoiding any use of the words “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong”.

Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

At Sociological Images, Lisa Wade has decided to promote a report by the Hastings Center on the practice of female genital mutilation. In response to what they consider “hyperbolic and one-sided” coverage by “Western media” without regard to the “cultural complexities” of mutilation, the report claims to offer “a better account of the facts”.

By uncritically parroting the report’s findings, Wade repeats its central mistake. For the sake of “balance”, she and the report both leave a gaping chasm where you might expect to see the most pressing, urgent, relevant aspect of the entire issue: the outrage that children are made to undergo medically unnecessary, disfiguring and disabling surgery upon their healthy, normal genitals without their consent.

However much they’ve tried to dance around what should be the central concern here, and excise any suggestion of moral judgment of FGM (they reserve that for “hyperbolic” journalists), its absence screams throughout the piece. You just can’t avoid noticing how this bioethics think tank seemingly displays no interest in considering the ethics of the very practice under discussion.

And while their intention may have simply been to dispel misconceptions about FGM rather than offer yet another condemnation of the practice, their overall characterization of this issue treats it as something that can be sterilized, prettified, and abstracted away. They repeatedly downplay the reality of mutilation – they prefer to call it “surgeries” or “modification”, stripping away any hint of negativity – with an attitude suggesting that those who oppose it should find something better to do with their time. It is a masterwork of callousness, sure to appeal to anyone who regards women as less than human.

This is underscored by the shortcomings of the “facts” they purport to offer. Their claims are almost wholly irrelevant to the inescapable problems presented by FGM, and provide only a cursory analysis of complex phenomena like cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies before dismissing the very possibility that this could have any bearing on the practice. As a whole, it comes off as pathetically reaching for any remotely plausible reason to oppose the “one-sided” condemnation of FGM, in the name of mere contrarianism.

For instance, the report criticizes a New York Times columnist for describing the mutilation as “the sewing or pinning together of both sides of the vulva, by catgut or thorns, and the obliteration of the vaginal entrance except for a tiny passage”. They contend that this “is not factually correct”. The report goes on to explain how three subtypes of mutilation are performed.

Type I is “restricted to procedures involving reduction of either the clitoral hood (the prepuce) or the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue, or both.” Type II “involves partial or complete labial reductions and partial or complete reductions of the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue.” In type III, infibulation, “the operation is concluded by shielding and narrowing the vaginal opening with stitches or other techniques of sealing, which forms a smooth surface of joined tissue that is opened at the time of first sexual intercourse.”

The authors then point out that “infibulations amount to approximately 10 percent of cases across the continent” and are sometimes performed using sutures under hygienic conditions in hospitals or clinics. Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off. Surely the Times was out of line for implying that there’s anything wrong with this practice.

So just how many women do undergo FGM, anyway? Could it be that it’s just very limited, and blown out of proportion by “one-sided” reporters? According to the report:

In some countries, the prevalence among women aged fifteen to forty-nine is very high (over 80 percent). These include estimates from Djibouti (93 percent), Egypt (91 percent), Eritrea (89 percent), Guinea (96 percent), Mali (85 percent), Sierra Leone (91 percent), Somalia (98 percent), and northern Sudan (89 percent).

Oh. So it turns out that 10% of about 90% of adult women in these nations have had their vaginas painfully sealed shut. This is not a small number. I don’t see why anyone would be reassured by the fact that 10% of these women have been forced to undergo infibulation. When millions of girls are still subjected to FGM, it doesn’t cease to be a problem merely because one writer’s description of a certain method’s prevalence was off by perhaps a factor of 10 and most of these girls “only” have their labia or clitoral tissue sliced off.

But hey, maybe FGM isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a harmless little “modification”. And yes, that’s where they’re taking this:

Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced. This is true of the 10 percent (type III) as well as the 90 percent (types I and II).

Most obviously, how does one tell the difference? Just as in male circumcision, girls are subjected to FGM long before they become sexually active. So how would they know what they’re missing? Of course they don’t notice any difference in their sexual satisfaction – they have no basis for comparison. This doesn’t mean that these practices have no impact whatsoever on their sexual functioning.

The report continues:

It should also be emphasized that cases of sexual dysfunction and pain during sex have been reported both by women who have undergone female genital surgery and by those who have not.

Notice how this sentence is carefully crafted to give the impression that women experience sexual dysfunction and pain at similar rates regardless of whether they’ve undergone genital mutilation, while actually telling us absolutely nothing. All it says is this: Some women who have undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain. Some women who haven’t undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain.

Well, so what? This provides no information whatsoever about the rates at which these two groups experience sexual dysfunction and pain, or the nature of the dysfunction and pain, or its cause, or its intensity. The report completely glosses over these relevant facts, instead preferring an ambiguous, equivocating, intellectually dishonest statement of “well, sometimes women have pain during sex even when they haven’t had FGM”. This tells us nothing about the effects of FGM.

Regardless, they continue in their attempts to minimize these effects:

The widely publicized and sensationalized reproductive health and medical complications associated with female genital surgeries in Africa are infrequent events and represent the exception rather than the rule.

What’s especially ironic is that the article Lisa Wade cited in her blog post says just the opposite:

It shows that few studies are appropriately designed to measure health effects, that circumcision is associated with significantly higher risks of a few well-defined complications, but that for other possible complications the evidence does not show significant differences.

Regardless of how exceptional the risk of complications may be, why should it be acceptable to expose a healthy child to these risks at all for no medical reason? Just because something is “the exception rather than the rule” doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable risk.

Yet even if there were never any complications, and even if this never caused any sexual dysfunction or pain, removing parts of a child’s body without reason and without consent simply isn’t justifiable. It also doesn’t really harm a child’s ability to function if you arbitrarily decide to give them a permanent tattoo, or remove one of their testicles (they’ve got two!), or lop off a toe or fingertip. But for some reason, people who do this to their children for no medical reason are arrested. Why? Because a lack of harm – or minimal harm, or low risk of harm – doesn’t equate to an unlimited license to alter a child’s body frivolously.

The report then goes on to explore the motivations behind this mutilation:

Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.” From the perspective of those who value these surgeries, they are associated with a positive aesthetic ideal aimed at making the genitals more attractive—“smooth and clean.”

Surprise, surprise. It seems the Hastings Center has discovered that People Tend To Think The Choices They Make Are Good. Of course the people who do this think they have a good and right reason for it. It would be ridiculous to think they just go around intentionally being evil and doing this to girls for no other reason than “hey, I’m evil and I’m going to slice up this girl’s genitals!” No one envisions themselves as the villain in the story of their life. This is to be expected.

But it doesn’t mean that their reasons or their aesthetic value judgments are valid. Just because someone has a justification doesn’t mean this justification is sound. While these explanations can help us understand what drives this practice, it’s not an excuse. Even if a culture regards a certain body modification as a visual improvement, it doesn’t justify violating a child’s bodily autonomy. If aesthetic sensibilities are so important here, where is the respect for that child’s own judgment? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to make these decisions for their own body as an adult, instead of having it forced upon them at a young age?

And why is anyone this concerned with the aesthetic appeal of a child’s genitals, anyway?

The red herrings keep on coming:

Customary genital surgeries are not restricted to females. In almost all societies where there are customary female genital surgeries, there are also customary male genital surgeries, at similar ages and for parallel reasons. In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary. As a broad generalization, it seems fair to say that societies for whom genital surgeries are normal and routine are not singling out females as targets of punishment, sexual deprivation, or humiliation.

This is an enormous and unexplained logical leap. While some societies may perform both male circumcision and female genital mutilation, this fact alone is not sufficient to conclude that the motivations behind each of these practices must be identical, or that a desire to control women and their sexuality could not possibly be a factor in FGM.

Indeed, just a paragraph later, the report explicitly acknowledges this:

In some societies where genital surgeries are customary for females and males (for example, in Northeast Africa), chastity and virginity are highly valued, and type III surgeries involving infibulation may be expressive of these values, but those chastity and virginity concerns are neither distinctive nor characteristic of all societies for whom genital surgeries are customary.

So, the practice of infibulation may be tied to values of virginity and chastity. Yet somehow, sealing a girl’s vagina into just a small opening must have nothing to do with inflicting sexual deprivation upon women. I suppose if they started bending boys’ penises in half and sewing both sides together, that would have nothing to do with sexual control, either?

The authors outdo themselves with the next conclusion they jump to:

Female genital surgery in Africa is typically controlled and managed by women. Similarly, male genital surgery is usually controlled and managed by men. Although both men and women play roles in perpetuating and supporting the genital modification customs of their cultures, female genital surgery should not be blamed on men or on patriarchy. Demographic and health survey data reveal that when compared with men, an equal or higher proportion of women favor the continuation of female genital surgeries.

Just because women are involved with a practice, or endorse it, does not mean that their views haven’t been influenced in any way whatsoever by the values of a male-dominated, male-controlled society. A woman’s approval does not suddenly make a certain practice completely acceptable. An opinion of “but I like it!” should not exempt these values from being critically examined. It doesn’t mean that the origins of these values are now irrelevant just because, hey, women say they’re okay with it. It’s not as though every choice made by a woman is morally unimpeachable and has nothing to do with the beliefs and standards of her culture.

The report declares that “far greater attention should be paid to the perspectives of African women who value the practice and describe it accordingly (for example, as genital beautification or genital cleansing).” Where does the notion that this mutilation is actually a “beautification” come from? The authors explain:

Within the aesthetic terms of these body ideals, cosmetically unmodified genitals in both men and women are perceived and  experienced as distasteful, unclean, excessively fleshy, malodorous, and somewhat ugly to behold and touch. The enhancement of gender identity is also frequently a significant feature of genital surgery, from the point of view of insiders who support the practice. In the case of male genital surgeries, the aim is to enhance male gender identity by removing bodily signs of femininity (the foreskin is perceived as a fleshy, vagina-like female element on the male body). In the case of female genital surgeries, the aim is often to enhance female gender identity by removing bodily signs of masculinity (the visible part of the clitoris is perceived as a protruding, penis-like masculine element on the female body).

Yes, because people have so often failed to give a fair hearing to the notion that someone’s healthy, normal genitals are actually dirty, smelly and ugly. After all, our society has never held such negative views toward genitalia, especially women’s genitalia. It’s unheard of! Likewise, I’m sure that the literal stripping of any perceived hint of femininity from boys’ bodies has no connection to the lengthy global history of elevating men above women and removing any association they might have with a lesser sex. And these attempts to deprive girls of the “masculinity” they were born with certainly has nothing to do with the goal of keeping them out of the elevated status of men.

The sheer laziness and deceit of this report, from a supposedly esteemed bioethics group, is disappointing enough. That they would engage in these intellectual contortions and willful ignorance for the purpose of downplaying the genital mutilation of girls, and criticizing those who speak out against this practice, is outrageous. It just goes to show that bioethicists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about it. Despite their title, they have no greater grasp of morality than anyone else, and the Hastings Center has made that unavoidably clear.

And it’s a discredit to Lisa Wade’s blog, usually an excellent source of analysis on how negative attitudes toward women are expressed in media, that she saw no need to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in this piece before giving it her stamp of approval. Good job adding some “balance” to counter all those silly people who think girls shouldn’t have their vulvas fused shut, you rebel you!

Your search queries, answered!

One of the fun features of the blog software is that I can see what people were searching for that led them to the site – not who they are, only what was typed into Google that pointed someone here. While it can be pretty amusing to see what people have searched for (“insults for gay men”? Let’s not), it’s also evident that many of them have serious questions about all sorts of subjects, and these are often worth delving into. So, I’ve decided to take a look at a few of these search terms and give them a more personal approach. For a few lucky searchers, I’ll be playing Cha-Cha. Or Siri. Or whatever people are using now. Shall we?

“gay people and straight people arguing video”

To start with, here’s an 11-part series of a debate between former National Organization for Marriage president Maggie Gallagher, and philosophy professor John Corvino, at Oregon State University. Also, see this debate between NOM president Brian Brown and advice columnist Dan Savage. Or, for a little less civility and enlightened discussion, refer to my coverage of a Westboro Baptist Church protest and counter-protest.

“why dont people blame rapists”

Some part of this is the just-world hypothesis, people’s desire to believe that life operates in a fair manner, with positive and negative consequences being distributed only to those who “deserve it”. This does not actually reflect reality, but people often like to think that if they just act in a certain way, they can avoid anything bad happening to them. When something happens which contradicts this notion, such as rape, their idea of a fair world becomes unsettled. It undermines the idea that they’ll be protected from harm as long as they do all the “right” things. But their need for a feeling of perceived safety in the world remains, so, to reinforce their beliefs that have come under attack, they imagine that someone who’s been unfairly victimized has actually been fairly victimized – they must have done something to deserve it.

This phenomenon is complemented by widespread attitudes, across almost all cultures, that men are to some degree helpless to control their desires to have sex with women, and women are therefore responsible for provoking their own rapes if they fail to adhere to some nebulous standard of behavior and attire. Of course, women have been raped everywhere and under all conceivable conditions, regardless of dress, sobriety, occupation or location, and this reveals the underlying constant: that women’s bodies are simply always seen as sexual objects, capable of annihilating men’s ability to resist raping them. For this reason, criticism of women’s conduct as somehow causing men to commit rape essentially amounts to telling them “don’t exist in the world as a woman”. People don’t blame rapists because they think rapists are somehow less responsible, or not responsible at all, for their acts of rape.

“who is it you have chosen over jesus?”

Personally? My family. My acquaintances. My audience. Myself. Pretty much anything, because almost everything has more practical relevance to my day-to-day life in reality than an ancient myth that some people happen to believe is the most important thing ever. And that’s probably why most people who choose other things over Jesus do so. Jesus is not that important – at least not to the majority of the world.

“zinnia jones hair”

I use Garnier Fructis shampoo and conditioner, followed by Tresemme heat protectant spray and a ceramic flat iron. For color, I use L’Oreal natural black #1 creme.

“should teachers be allowed to tell class they are gay”

Let’s do a little thought exercise. How many times did you hear one of your teachers mention her husband in passing? Most likely a fair few times. Was this ever a problem? No. Yet your teachers were effectively telling their classes that they were straight. What need is there for them to share such personal information? Well, it’s just not a big deal, and nobody takes issue with it. Why should it be a problem? It would be absurd to ask whether these teachers should be “allowed” to let their students ever find out that they have a partner of the opposite sex, because it simply makes no sense to expect them to amputate that entire portion of their lives the moment they walk into the classroom. There’s no reason to treat gay teachers any differently in this regard.

Well, that’s it for this round of search queries. See you next time, and keep on searching!

This is how slut-shaming works

Rebecca Watson has provided an insightful overview of why calendars featuring pin-up photos of women, even for important causes, may be doing more harm than good:

The women were objectified on a level unmatched by those viewing and commenting on the men. This was something difficult for me to objectively evaluate at the time and was just a hunch based on my casual observations, but that hunch was confirmed last year when I had shitlord after shitlord emailing me to tell me that I have no right to complain about being groped or propositioned at conferences because I posed in a calendar for skeptics (see my filthy slut photo as the featured image on this post). If Phil Plait ever complains about a woman grabbing his crotch at a conference, I’m confident that no one will forward him his entry in the 2007 “Skepdude” Calendar and tell him to stop being such a whore if he doesn’t want that kind of attention.

It’s all worth reading, but this part stood out as especially important for everyone to understand. Regardless of the noble ideals of the movement for sex-positivity, the reality is that we live in a world where many men will make it simply impossible for any woman to exercise the full range of her choices as a sexual person without incurring intolerable penalties. They do this by using women’s personal and sexual decisions which they disapprove of as a cause to brand them for all time and invalidate anything else they’ve ever done. That’s how they police women’s sexuality: by threatening to erase her entire history, body of work, and depth as an individual, and reduce her existence to a single scarlet letter if she ever fails to obey their (unjust, suffocating, no-win, double-standard) norms.

And they see nothing wrong with this?

Even for, this is a whole new kind of low. What I’ve always found most disturbing about that site is not merely that it exists, but that the wider “men’s rights” corner of the internet apparently sees no need to repudiate its content. This is a place that proudly hosts articles claiming that pointing out misogyny is the same as centuries of vicious racial hatred and abuse, and whose founder rants about “feminists, manginas, white knights and other agents of misandry” in their mission statement. He is also completely unable to refrain from calling women “whores” (just count ’em!).

And how does the men’s rights movement at large respond to this? Do they declare that this site does not represent their interests? That it’s simply too reprehensible to support? That it doesn’t deserve to be read and it doesn’t deserve to speak on their behalf? It would seem not. The site is almost always heavily upvoted on various MRA sections of Reddit, and it’s a challenge to find anyone aligned with “men’s rights” who denounces it for its ridiculous and extraordinarily offensive claims. Nowhere do we see an acknowledgement that perhaps this is not the voice that men need. It’s unsettling that so many of them seem to find this tolerable and not at all problematic.

Because apparently women just shouldn’t leave the house

After an Arizona police officer was convicted of sexually abusing a woman at a bar, here’s what the judge had to say to the victim:

The judge sentencing Evans, Coconino County Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Hatch, said she hoped both the defendant and the victim would take lessons away from the case.

Bad things can happen in bars, Hatch told the victim, adding that other people might be more intoxicated than she was.

“If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you,” Hatch said. …

“When you blame others, you give up your power to change,” Hatch said that her mother used to say.

I guess bars are just a permanent no-go zone for women. Or anywhere that people are drunk. Or anywhere that anyone might sexually assault them. They just have to stay away from any place rapists might be.

Except, you know, that’s everywhere. Women are raped anywhere and everywhere: at bars, concerts, rallies, offices, in hotels, subways, alleys, parks, the woods, elevators, cars, any secluded or isolated space, in public, in broad daylight, even in their own homes. The “she shouldn’t have been there” argument is really nothing more than a “she shouldn’t have been anywhere” argument, because there is nowhere that women are not raped. What “power to change” ought the victim have exercised? The power to remove herself entirely from the society in which she lives, as all women supposedly must do because rapists just can’t stop raping people?

Would-be rapists do not have some Sims-like beacon above their head that says “I am here to rape someone”. If they aim to get close enough to someone to rape them, then broadcasting clear signals of their intentions is precisely what they will try not to do – they’ll seek to imitate non-rapists as best they can, so they don’t stand out at all. But hey, let’s not go blaming other people for raping women or anything. Let’s just hold the victims responsible for not being able to read people’s minds and identify predators at a glance, and for failing to wall themselves into a sealed room for the rest of their lives.

By the way, that claim of “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you”? It’s not even true. It is explicitly, demonstrably false, in this very same case:

Evans also pinched another woman on the buttocks an hour before sexually abusing the victim in this case, according to a witness. The judge ruled before trial that the incident would be prejudicial if it was allowed to be admitted as evidence.

If she had not been there, someone else would have been assaulted. Someone else was assaulted. How many women should have to avoid public spaces just to keep from being abused by this man? All of them? They aren’t the ones to blame for this. If he hadn’t been there, none of this would have happened.