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Why do we laugh at sexist jokes?

Post about stereotyping, cliche
thinking gets stereotyped,
cliched image

Let’s say you view love as a battlefield. Okay, more like a football field. Dating, sex, relationships, marriage– they’re all a series of skirmishes against the other team, aka the opposite sex. You compete with others on your own team as well, fellow Men players and Women players, but when push comes to shove it’s really your team against their team. When you get together with fellow teammates, you make fun of the other team with abandon. Sometimes you even do it in their presence. It’s expected; it’s normal– why wouldn’t both sides of a rivalry do that? And hey, it’s all in good fun. More or less. Because after all, you’re going to be playing on this field for your entire life. You will never stop playing, and neither will they. As a straight person, that’s what you’re expected to do– it’s all you can do. Right?

That’s what you’d call an adversarial model of sex and relationships– a zero-sum game, in which men and women are two sides in a conflict, each trying to get what they want from the other. Generally speaking, according to this model what men are trying to get is sex with the hottest women possible (and eventually marriage with the most virginal) while women are trying to get married to the wealthiest, most high-status men, and the behavior of both sexes can be read as performed in pursuit of this goal. Both the “is” and the “ought” here are taken as a given, and since the goals of men and women generally differ, they are eternally at odds with each other and can be expected to engage in various forms of manipulation in order to get what they want. Sure, at times this will result in love– but never complete trust, because the goals remain different even though they overlap. You’re in competition amongst (straight) people of your own sex because you all want the same thing, and also with people of the opposite sex because they also all want the same thing, and they want it from you. Hopefully.

If you don’t view relationships this way yourself, you probably know people who do. When there aren’t members of the opposite sex around they’ll talk about how crazy women are, or how stupid men are, secure in the belief that you not only won’t mind but will actually appreciate these comments, because after all you’re on the same team. You’re just one of the guys/gals, and we’ve got to stick together. Bros before hos, and whatever the female equivalent is. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one, or at least there isn’t an actual slogan that women employ for this mentality. We are not, however, exempt from that kind of thing.

I was thinking about this while reading Miri at Brute Reason’s excellent post discussing research on sexist humor. Her post covers studies which found a correlation between appreciation of sexist jokes and permissive attitudes toward sexual assault and rape, and it’s a must-read. The most interesting portion of it to me, however, was this:

Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.

It actually hadn’t occurred to me that if you’re one of these people– male or female– who views sex and love in adversarial terms, you’re not only likely to likely to appreciate sexist jokes, but likely to appreciate (or at least not be offended by) sexist jokes against your own gender. That is, if you go through life assuming that people of the opposite sex are in some sense the enemy, trying to manipulate members of your sex into getting what they want, you’re not likely to be surprised when they make jokes at your gender’s expense. In fact you’d expect this, because it’s not like you can have a battle with only one side fighting, can you? It’s all in good fun to trash people of the opposite sex because a) it’s so true (that’s why we’re laughing), and b) hey, they do it too.

Now, the studies Miri discusses weren’t conducted to examine adversarial thinking in relationship to sexist jokes specifically, so I’m extrapolating from this. But I would hazard to guess that if the jokes told had been sexist toward men rather than toward women, the men wouldn’t have been terribly bothered and might well have laughed, again in correlation with the extent to which they think in adversarial terms. And this makes quite a bit of sense when you consider that a lot of the jokes which poke fun at people based on their sex do so in both directions. It’s staggering to think about how many comedians have built their entire careers trading on such stereotypes, male and female, and they’re usually at least implying some not-so-flattering things about their own gender while appearing to attack the other. Often unintentionally, but still they are.

So if this is all true, it gives you something to think about when, for example, discussing why a woman would laugh at Seth McFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song at the Oscars. That song celebrated adversarial thinking, without a doubt. And when a public figure makes a joke, song, commercial, speech….really any sort of performance that transmits a message which turns out to offend people, the first thing those who enjoyed/agree with it do is find examples of people the performance supposedly mocked, hold them up, and say “Look at this– we found a woman/person of color/homosexual/citizen of that country/member of that religion who thinks it’s funny/true! Therefore it’s not offensive!” Every. Single. Time.

In the case of sexism, maybe this is the explanation for why. Not because the joke isn’t sexist, but because they share a mindset with the person making the joke which permits them to enjoy it along with them, even though it’s sexist in their direction. Because hey– it’s so true. And they do it too.

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In related news, it’s a travesty that this Kickstarter will almost certainly not be funded. If you’re interested in the general topic of offensive jokes, consider supporting it even if you don’t like this post from me. Even if you think I’m absolutely wrong– especially if you think so. Because if so, that documentary might bolster your case. 🙂

A bit of mulling over

Following up on Sunday’s post, I can’t help but keep returning mentally to Dr. Darrel Ray’s talk at Skeptics of Oz last month, which you can see and hear (both are important in this case) here.

In a nutshell, the thesis of Ray’s talk (and, I assume, of his book Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, although I haven’t read it) is that the essence of religion– in particular American Christianity– is sexual control via shaming. Shame and guilt, actually– Ray doesn’t differentiate between the two, although I find the distinction between them very important. He says that religion causes people to be filled with sexual shame to the extent that even as they grow up and live out their lives as mature, sexually active adults, they are compelled to lie about that sexuality to themselves, their friends and family, and especially their children. They lie about the fact that they masturbate. They lie about the fact that they have sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, or after. They lie about sexual attraction being a part of them that exists quite independently of the desire to create and raise children, and as such isn’t something which sprang into existence on their wedding day and exists only for the person they married.

In support of this position, Ray points to higher than average levels of divorce, pornography consumption, and teenage pregnancy in the more fundamentalist parts of the U.S. Sexual shame is the source of all this lying, he asserts, because we can’t escape from being sexual beings, and yet religious people– again, mainly American Christians– yearn to escape this aspect of our nature so badly that they are driven to simply deny it. This shame manifests itself even people who have deconverted, as a vestigial part of our moral thinking as adults, which can be observed when the more secular amongst us nevertheless engage in activities such as slut-shaming against others as well as when they turn it inward and deny their own impulses. In order to properly reject this, Ray says, we must be “secular sexuals,” embracing our own sexuality as well as that of other people– to admit publicly that we masturbate and have since we were kids, to refrain from slut-shaming and condemn those who do, and recognize that other people have their own preferences and these are their own business. In this way, we can subvert the popular assumption that sex sullies a person– particularly if she is female– and encourage education while discouraging ignorance and bigotry.
Okay, that wasn’t exactly a nutshell. Sorry.
Now, this was both a safe and audacious talk for Ray to give at a meeting like Skeptics of Oz. Audacious because those are some very strong claims– the original claim was that religion is a “sexually transmitted disease,” that religion is all about sexual control, religion is fundamentally about making people feel ashamed of their sexuality and deny it their entire lives even while dating, marrying, producing children, and in general living a typical adult sexual life. And religious people hearing this would think “No, that doesn’t remotely describe my experience.” Which, in America, for most religious people, is probably true. It’s possible that religion in America is as much about sexual control as veterinary medicine is about euthanizing peoples’ pets– a phenomenon which is a near-monopoly, but far from an all-consuming purpose. Which leads to why it was a safe talk for Ray to give at a conference for skeptics– because when it comes to conferences, “skeptic” generally entails, if not translates to, “atheist.” (See this excellent talk by Matt Dillahunty at this year’s American Atheists conference for what the distinction is, and why it’s important.)

He wasn’t likely to hear a lot of argument from the audience about religion’s role in sexual shaming and deceit– and in fact, there was none. And that is because, I feel comfortable in saying, we– not just secular, but anyone other than socially conservative Americans– are sick to death of social conservatism. And social conservatism, especially that relating to anything sexual, invariably comes with an appeal to religious sensibilities. Because this is America, Christian religious sensibilities. Abortion? God’s against it. Birth control covered by health insurance? Same. Pornography? Same. Gay rights? Same (but please don’t look at how many politicians and clergy have been caught having gay affairs). Sex outside of marriage? Same (but please don’t examine how many of us have stuck to that). Adultery? Same (but please don’t look at our divorce rates). We’re used to this, if anything but happy about it. It’s called the religious right, and it shows no sign of going away. So of course a group of secularists– sworn enemies of the religious right– are not going to speak up about a talk saying that religion (American Christianity) is, fundamentally, about sexual control.

I just think it’s overstating things. Just a tad.

To be continued.

The miseducation of Katelyn Campbell

Katelyn Campbell

Recently in West Virginia, a teenager objected to a particularly obviously problematic form of abstinence-only education. Wait, let me rephrase that– “Lying, slut-shaming diatribe” would be a better name for it. And the teenager in question, Katelyn Campbell, knew that’s what it was. She even used the word “slut-shaming,” which is just excellent. It’s like a teenager being taught to “consider the controversy” in her biology class when learning about evolution immediately saying “Intelligent Design, right? That’s really what you’re getting at. Right?” Only in this case, it’s as if Intelligent Design was the only thing being taught. And evolution was presented as a pack of lies. And students who believe in it were chastised, shamed, and told that their mothers probably hate them.

Yes, one of the things Pam Stenzel, Christian sex educator, said during her presentation was “If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you.” Other common statements in her “educational” talks include gems such as:

  • “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.” 
  • “Ladies, you contract Chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.” 
  • ”That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she was not taking that drug.”
  • ”Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be.”

And my personal favorite,

  • “if you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous – and monogamy does not mean one at a time, that means one partner who has only been with you – if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay. No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid.”
Campbell apparently knew about Stenzel and chose not to attend the assembly that she (Stenzel) would be speaking for at George Washington High School, where Campbell is a senior and student body vice president. Instead, she started speaking out about the issue and filed a complaint with the ACLU. This attracted the attention of the school’s principal, George Aulenbacher, who called Campbell into his office and proceeded to lecture and, according to Campbell, threaten her

Aulenbacher called Campbell to the principal’s office after she contacted media outlets about the assembly and said, “I am disappointed in you” and “How could you go to the press without telling me?” according to the complaint. He then allegedly threatened to call Wellesley College, where Campbell has been accepted, and tell them about her actions. “How would you feel if I called your college and told them what bad character you have and what a backstabber you are?” he said, according to the complaint.

In case you’re wondering, it’s all cool with Welleseley.

And it’s probably all cool with Katelyn Campbell as well. In addition to Wellesley issuing a public statement saying it is “delighted to welcome” her as a member of the class of 2017, people are clamoring to congratulate Campbell for her bravery and maturity in this matter. And she deserves every bit of it– she’s one of those rare high school students to whom it would even occur to consider that something like the tirade by Pam Stenzel at her school might not just be hard to sit through, not just unpleasant, not just wrong, but possibly illegal...and then actually do something about it. Become a student activist.

Jessica Ahlquist did the same thing, and endured endless harassment and threats for it. It doesn’t look Campbell is going to have the same experience, though there has been some backlash in the form of a Facebook group originating in support of her principal. Aulenbacher’s threat itself proved to hold no water, and from what I’ve read if he had been more familiar with Wellesley he should have known this himself, but the fact is…he didn’t. He thought he could intimidate a student into shutting up about her objections to an assembly, and that it would be a good idea to do so. If this is all true, he appears to be one of those public school administrators who clearly views his position as one of domination rather than education, and therefore should not be in that role. But it remains to be seen what happens there.

In the meantime, there’s so much discussion about Pam Stenzel and her message. In this instance, her visit to George Washington High School was funded by a local Christian organization called Believe in West Virginia, and probably cost between $3,500-5,000. She has a DVD called “Sex Still Has a Price Tag” which she sells to public schools for $30 a pop. She claims to speak to over 500,000 young people a year, at both public and private schools. She attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, is supposedly a product of rape and then adopted (as described in her talks), and previously worked at crisis pregnancy centers (pseudo-clinics which are frequently run by pro-life groups and are known for providing pregnant women with false or misleading medical information to encourage them not to abort). The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States’ (SIECUS) says of Stenzel:

Pam Stenzel

Pam Stenzel was one of the first individuals that SIECUS became aware of who made a career of traveling from school to school providing abstinence-only-until-marriage assemblies and presentations. The influx of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding has meant that more schools are able to pay for these kinds of services (or receive them for free as part of a grant to a local community-based organization, crisis pregnancy center, or church), and Stenzel and her peers have been very popular in recent years. There is much to suggest that there is now a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage speakers that help promote each other’s work and materials.

This comes from a lengthy and comprehensive review of her “Sex Still Has a Price Tag” video, which includes several fact-checks of statements she makes concerning birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, and notes that

Pam Stenzel does not attempt to hide the fact that her performance is designed to scare young people. She begins by telling her teen audience, “If you forget everything else I told you today, and you can only remember one thing, this is what I want you to hear. If you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous—and monogamy does not mean one at a time—that means one partner who has only been with you— if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay.” The rest of the presentation hammers home this concept by telling young people exactly what form this payment may take from unintended pregnancy, to STDs, to emotional heartbreak, to death. Ms. Stenzel’s tone throughout her presentation can best be described as punitive, as though she knows that some of the teens in this world (and some members of her audience) have had or will have sex outside of her parameters, and she wants them to know that they will be punished. Moreover, by suggesting that these teens deserve punishment, Ms. Stenzel presents a world view in which virginity is the only measure of a person’s character and moral judgment, and sets up a dichotomy between those who are “good” and those who are “bad.”

The review is worth a full read, though if you’re anything like me, it will make you angry.

I can’t help but mentally compare it to the DARE program, in which I recall being told outright that consumption of any illegal drug will cause you to become immediately addicted to it, which means that all people who use illicit drugs recreationally are addicts. That’s an easily disconfirmable claim, even without consuming any such drug yourself– all one need do is observe some users of illicit drugs who are not, in fact, addicts. However, Stenzel’s “If you have more than one sexual partner, you will pay” lie is better and worse at the same time, because it’s so much more easily disconfirmable. This statement can be shown as nonsense by simply observing that practically all Americans have sex before marriage, and multiple sexual partners in their lifetimes, and yet they don’t appear to be “paying.” At least, not in any way that is causally distinct from the way in which those precious few one-partner-forever people (or, of course, the lifelong celibate) are not “paying.” As I’ve written before, waiting to have sex until you’re married doesn’t protect you from anything. And having a single sexual partner who has also had no other sex partner but yourself may protect you from STDs, but a) this describes practically no one, and b) Stenzel denies this, but condoms do work. Quite well, actually. These two facts together ruin her entire thesis. Further, the most common STD which most people get actually isn’t that bad. Most people who contract it won’t even know they have it. As SIECUS says,

In truth, the majority of HPV infections cause neither genital warts nor cervical cancer but, instead, resolve themselves spontaneously without medical intervention. Even HPV infections that cause warts can resolve without treatment. And, if young women do contract one of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it typically takes 10–15 years once cervical cells begin to change before invasive cervical cancer develops.

So interestingly, in the process of de-stigmatizing premarital sex in response to people like Stenzel, we end up de-stigmatizing STDs as well. It’s not that STDs aren’t bad, of course, but they’re not as bad as people like Stenzel like to portray, and worst of all of course is the fact that she continually emphasizes (erroneously) how bad STDs are while also denigrating effective means of protecting against them. This is moralizing standpoint, not a fact-based standpoint. Clearly, facts are not the important thing here. You don’t tell people how to prevent house fires by telling them never to buy a house, or denying the efficacy of fire extinguishers.

In a few different places while reading about this story, I’ve seen people say that if you object to what Stenzel does, you must be fine with telling kids to have sex. You’re endorsing an “anything goes” mentality. I’m not doing anything of the sort– I know what I want teenagers to know about sex, and it isn’t “Go forth and screw without regard for the consequences.” At bare minimum, I want them to know the truth…yet I’m starting to wonder if that’s asking too much.

Not only is Stenzel hiding facts from the kids she supposedly teaches; she’s indoctrinating them with falsehoods. Harmful, counter-productive falsehoods. We really need to stop this practice of just inventing catastrophes and pretending that they’re inevitable for kids who do whatever we don’t want kids to do. Kids will see through this, because a) they’re not stupid, and b) they grow up. And when they do, they will come to question everything they’ve been taught because this particular thing has been shown to be so absurdly false. And while I’m all in favor of thinking critically and questioning authority, it would be nice for public school students not to be taught complete nonsense which forces them to eventually learn the value of such things for themselves, gradually and painfully. That isn’t education. Let’s not stand for it.

Forward Thinking: What is the purpose of marriage?

Libby Anne and Dan Finke at Patheos have started a project called Forward Thinking, which is a series of questions they put to bloggers to encourage them to think productively. The replies to these questions are then rounded up and a new prompt posted. This is my second crack at it. The first can be found here. This round’s question is actually three questions, so I’ll answer them in order.


What do you believe should be the purpose of marriage in our society today? 

The purpose of marriage is to confer government and societal benefits on people who have established what they intend to be long-standing attachments to another person who isn’t a relative by blood or adoption, because these are considered to be the basis of new family units and turn individuals into households. Do I believe that should be their purpose? Sure, I suppose. It’s awfully handy to have what you already consider a binding attachment to someone officially recognized, because otherwise the people with the most legal control over your life besides yourself, who will get to inherit your stuff and make decisions for you in the event of you falling into a coma, are your family. And family can be wonderful, but sometimes it isn’t. You didn’t choose your ancestral family, but you can choose your spouse– sort of. So marriage, as practiced in places where it isn’t arranged, can be a means for the individual to have some more autonomy that way. But I think realistically, marriage results in less autonomy overall. When we think about freedom most of us don’t think first about who will get our stuff when we die or who gets to decide whether to unplug our brain-dead selves from life support if such necessity should arise, but rather our daily existence. And marriage gives another person, and the government, more control over our daily existence. Most people seem happy to make that trade-off, however, and sociological research says that married people are happier in general.

Another thing marriage does is prioritize certain kinds of relationships– namely, romantic ones (again, in places where marriage is not arranged). There isn’t any particular benefit to the rest of society if two (or more) people fall in love, and the benefits they receive by being marriage don’t require them to love each other. Romantic love is a pretty strong glue, and I’m not saying that people who don’t love each other should get married, but there are other kinds of love besides the romantic variety. Other glues are good too. I don’t see any particular reason they couldn’t be just as good for sticking people together and calling it marriage.

What do you personally see as the purpose of marriage for your own life? 

As discussed in my recent post on getting rid of the “premarital” in “premarital sex,” I’m not married. And it’s not because of some scary precedent set in my own family– my parents just had their 45th anniversary and are going strong, and both of my brothers are in happy marriages. My eldest brother got married in 2009, and prior to the wedding my mother and I had an interesting exchange. It went something like this: “Your brother is going to be the best man, and her sister the maid of honor…you won’t be part of the wedding party.” “Oh, that’s okay– I still get to be there!” “Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t mind.” I’m really not very into weddings.

And, an even bigger indicator, I’m not into having kids. At all. Both of my brothers went into marriage expecting to have kids, which is good— that’s something you should definitely figure out ahead of time, in case your spouse-to-be does not! But I attended that wedding in 2009 with my boyfriend at the time, whom I’d been with for ten years. Not a smidge of a desire for kids in either of us, and unmarried. And, not too much later, we broke up. I don’t think that had anything to do with our not being married– if we had been married, we would have had a divorce on our hands rather than a break-up.

So I guess at least at this point, the purpose of marriage in my life is nil. While I’m quite capable of loving and being in love, and while a big party with my family and friends with nice gifts and a vacation following sounds awesome, that’s like thinking you want a dog because you like puppies. Don’t get a dog unless you want the dog.

And finally, what responsibilities, duties, and/or obligations do you believe marriage should entail?

I don’t like being all normative about other people’s relationships– there is no one-size-fits-all model for the perfect marriage, just as there isn’t for any other committed relationship. So I’d say that the same applies for both, which is that a successful relationship is most likely for two (or more) people who want the same things (mostly), and are able to work out between them how to go about getting them. This generally means setting standards for themselves and expectations for each other, and then following through on those. If your relationship doesn’t forbid X and someone else’s does, then in their relationship it’s a responsibility to avoid X while in yours it is not– and vice versa. Relationship advice columns are not completely useless because there are some things that most people in relationships can be counted upon to want– that doesn’t mean, however, that there’s any particular reason they should want them, aside from the fact that they do. Your relationship, your rules.

If that’s the case, then the best ways to fail are a) failing to meet expectations that have been set in your relationship, and b) failing to set any expectations at all, just assuming that your partner already knows everything you expect, presumably by osmosis or something. The best “duty” to have in a relationship is to communicate. To say what you want and think and how you feel, and then listen to what your partner wants and thinks and feels. If you don’t do that, what’s the point of being attached to them in the first place?

Look at you, all flaunting your autonomy

Women are not entitled to respect when they walk around without a [hijab]. They are to blame for it when they are attacked.

said an imam from Denmark, Shahid Mehdi, who was arrested in Malmo, Sweden for reportedly exposing himself to a woman in a park. When I read about this, I sarcastically asked if the Steubenville rape victim would have been protected if only she’d been wearing a hijab, or if she would still have been sexually assaulted and then blamed for her own attack.

Not raping someone– not exposing yourself to her, not threatening her– seems like an odd concept of “respect.” There many people I don’t respect at all, but to whom I somehow manage to avoid doing any of these things. It actually seems like instead, if conforming to your desires for how a “proper” woman, a lady, should dress and behave herself are conditions for you not attacking her, not harassing her, not slinging sexual epithets like “cunt” or “whore” in her direction, that’s not exactly respect. That’s more like forbearance. Congratulations, you look and behave how I’d like you to, so I’ll hold off on the physical assault and slut-shaming. Don’t you feel valued?

Because demanding such things in order for you to behave like a decent human being is the opposite of respect, isn’t it? If you actually respected women, you wouldn’t try to control them. You wouldn’t make such demands. You would support, embrace, exult in their ability to dress, behave, and conduct their sex lives as they choose. When they are attacked, you would condemn the attackers, and you would never be the attacker. You would extend this empathy toward women in general, and reserve loss of respect for individuals as you would in any other case– when that individual behaves in ways which are actually immoral, and not just “unladylike” or “slutty” or whatever term you prefer to tell women how to be women.

That’s what respect is. And it’s not that hard…really.

Demystifying “premarital”

Sex advice show Savage U (hated by Idaho legislators)

As Idaho lawmakers take a symbolic stand (was there ever was a more useless stand, or a more wasteful use of taxpayer money?) against premarital sex by “urging the Federal government and the FCC to prohibit the portrayal, even implied, or even the discussion of premarital sex on TV between 6am and 10pm,” I think some demystification is in order.

Yes, it would be a gross violation of freedom of speech for such a ban to take effect. No question (I saw the suggestion that more liberal-leaning members of the Idaho legislature propose banning the depiction of guns on TV, and we could see “how fast it would take these Republicans to discover the First Amendment”).
Yes, it’s ironic that such a ban would prevent educational discussion of safer sex, along with presumably any depiction or discussion of extramarital sex, which would make it difficult for news programs to discuss the many sex scandals of politicians (usually Republican…hmm, maybe this ban is making more and more sense). Oh, and also– soap operas. A lot of those take place between 6am and 10pm, don’t they?

But what I really want to talk about is this notion of “premarital sex,” and why it supposedly shouldn’t be depicted or discussed. The vast majority of Americans have had or will have sex outside of marriage, including presumably the majority of Idaho lawmakers trying to prevent TV from so much as talking about it. And I use the word “outside” there because the word “premarital” is, or should be considered at this point, ridiculous. Think of the implications with regard to this particular “symbolic stand”:

  • Could unmarried characters on TV shows get around this provision by simply declaring their intent to spend the rest of their lives unmarried before getting it on (or talking about getting it on)? 
  • Is depiction of married TV characters having sex, however explicit or raunchy, a-okay then?
  • What about gay sex? Is depiction or discussion of that just fine, since all gay sex is outside of marriage– in Idaho, at least? And isn’t it weird to think about calling it “premarital” in that context? Like the “pre” means “before it’s legal for me to get married (and I’ve been an adult for years)”?

I’m 35, and have never been married. At what point does my sex stop being “premarital,” if ever? Would Idaho prefer that my sexual activities never be depicted or discussed on television? (Of course I would prefer that, but actually making it illegal seems like, you know, a bit of overkill.) And yes, I’m an exception in that regard– most Americans do get married. But they get married at different points, usually well past the age of majority, and (again) most of them have sex prior to the point at which they get married. Sometimes long before. So what is the point of pretending otherwise? Isn’t it lazy– wait, not just lazy but harmful— to make marriage some kind of benchmark at which sex becomes suddenly permissible and the actual real-world concerns that necessitate having sex safely– unwanted pregnancy and disease– suddenly vanish?

Because they don’t.

Marriage is many things. It is a legal contract between two people (and their god, if that’s what they believe). It is a commitment to share life and love, joys and grief, together. It is, basically, whatever these partners (at this point, since polygamy isn’t legal at the moment) decide to make it, and they can make it something amazing. But three things they can’t make it for themselves, much less for every married couple, are 1) a prophylactic, 2) a fail-safe monogamous arrangement, or 3) a mature, non-abusive, psychologically healthy relationship. Marriage doesn’t stop unwanted pregnancy, it doesn’t stop transmission of disease, and it doesn’t stop rape, manipulation, cheating, or any other kind of negative behavior by one’s partner. To pretend otherwise is to lie.

To that extent, talking about premarital sex is also a lie. It suggests that a person’s life can be divided into two periods– premarital and marital (and presumably post-marital, if your spouse dies or if you get divorced, as half the population does), and the period before marriage is when sex is wrong, bad, dangerous, etc. This is, strangely, how some people who oppose same-sex marriage so vociferously have actually created the very problem they argue against. It goes something like this:

  1. Sex outside of marriage is dangerous and bad.
  2. Gays, not being married (because of course they can’t get married), can only have sex outside of marriage. 
  3. Therefore gays have dangerous, bad sex. 
  4. Therefore we can’t let gays get married, because their sex is dangerous and bad. 
Yes, seriously.
So how about we do something radical, and decide that there’s no such thing as “premarital”? That marriage is not an inevitability, it’s not permanent, and it’s not a guarantee against the things you need to worry about, sexually, when you’re not married? Because realistically, there are no such things. Not, that is, unless you think that things like being disallowed from visiting your partner and making medical decisions for him/her while in hospital counts as a sexual concern. Not unless you think that being able to keep your partner in the country after immigrating because they’re your partner counts as a sexual concern. Not unless you think that tax benefits associated with marriage are sexual concerns. 
Let this post not be interpreted as an argument against marriage– it undoubtedly has benefits, emotional and pragmatic, and I’m not saying otherwise. I’m just saying that it’s not a finish line. You don’t get to run run run run and virtuously, dedicatedly, remain celibate until that magical point when you get to dress in white (if female) or a tux (if male) and leap through the tape stretched across the point where you no longer have to care about your reproductive and sexual needs because they weren’t taken care of before and they are now…now and forever. 
Nope. Not even if you do, eventually, get married. 
So….here’s a thought. Let’s drop the concern about “premarital sex,” and be concerned about unsafe sex. Problematic sex. Non-consensual sex. 
And let’s not hide it. Let’s talk about it, because we all– if we’re honest– are doing it, or have done it, or will do it.
Are you listening, Idaho?

Recommendation: Metadating

When the Geek & Sundry channel started up on Youtube, I was excited but decided that there was really only one show I wanted to watch regularly, Tabletop. That turned out to be a bad idea because their lineup has changed quite a bit since, including the addition of a show I only discovered this weekend but already love: Metadating. Metadating is a long– usually almost two hour– show that’s really a Google hangout of three guys playing (well, one guy playing and two others watching) a video game involving romantic relationships and discussing it as they go. Now, this already has potential if you just enjoy gaming and you’re the kind of person who likes watching other people play (and I do), but what really makes the show special is who these three guys are.

The show is hosted by Sean Plott, or Day[9], an e-sports commentator for Starcraft 2, and two game designers, Bill Graner and Sean Bouchard (Bouchard did a TEDx talk on the intersection of gaming and education which you can see here). The three have a ritual of introducing each episode by talking about what they’re drinking that evening and the show moved from “family friendly” to “parental advisory: explicit language” on the second episode, and a good time is had by all. But the best part, by far, is that these guys actually know what they’re talking about, and it’s really cool to watch and listen to people who know both gaming and relationships discuss the depiction of relationships in games. Especially when, as you know quite well if you’re a gamer yourself, the topic isn’t exactly central most of the time. Slaughtering people via one means or another– explosives, swords, guns– generally take precedence, for understandable reasons. It’s exciting, and it’s easy. Relationships are hard. Or at least, they’re hard to depict in a way that makes sense and is compelling rather than seeming laughably fake, and laughably fake is more acceptable or even welcome in a lot of aspects of gaming, but relationships aren’t one. Especially romantic relationships, which are conspicuous in video games by their rarity and are even more rarely a central focus or goal, and when they are a goal are often depicted….questionably. I guess my standards are low, because I was gobsmacked  when the word “narrative” first came out of the mouth of one of the hosts (Bouchard, most likely) and I realized that this wasn’t just going to be a show of three guys drinking and laughing at video games.

On Youtube the comments are, as you’d expect, full of reactions from people who love the game being discussed in that particular episode who are bristling to criticism of it (“You just didn’t play enough to get the full experience! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”) and the occasional person wishing that they’d “get a lady on.” Yeah, it makes sense that if you’re going to do a show about the depiction of romance in video games, you might just want a female perspective. But Plott, Graner, and Bouchard all went to grad school together (USC’s School of Cinematic Arts) and seem to know each other well, and rapport is so valuable for shows like this. And I’ve honestly been impressed by the even-handedness of the discussion so far.

So. You know. If you’re into that sort of thing….check it out.

And I now have two gaming-related books on my Goodreads “want to read” list:

Forward Thinking: What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Finke at Patheos have started a project called Forward Thinking, which is a series of questions they put to bloggers to encourage them to think productively. The replies to these questions are then rounded up and a new prompt posted. This will be my first crack at it. 

Congratulations, teenager! You are the recipient of a rapidly and perhaps scarily developing sexuality. By “sexuality,” I am of course referring to the parts of you which are growing and in some cases becoming hairier at a rate which is almost certainly not to your satisfaction in one way or another, but also to the feelings you have about those parts and what you’d like to do with them, either by yourself or with friends. I’m referring to the changes in the way you carry yourself, the way you dress to either show off or hide (or frequently both) your body, and the way your relationships with pretty much everyone you know are changing in mutual recognition of all this. It’s a lot to take in, I know– “fraught” would not be too strong a word for it. But you’ll get through this.

I want to talk a little bit about how to do so, while being a good person– what you could call sexual ethics. There are two aspects of that which I’m going to cover:

  • Taking care of yourself
  • Taking care of others

Yep, that’s it. That’s what sexual ethics is. You might think it’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t to a lot of people…and I’m going to try and explain that too.

First, let’s talk about taking care of yourself.

You need to do this both mentally and physically, and oftentimes they will amount to the same thing.

For example, masturbation. It’s something you should do– you know, if you want to. It feels good, it’s sanity-preserving, and most importantly for teenagers, it give you an opportunity to get to know your body better and achieve some sexual satisfaction without engaging in intercourse with another person. It is not wrong and never in your life will it become wrong. It can only be inappropriate, such as if you don’t take proper care to preserve your privacy while masturbating, or count as poor behavior toward your sexual partners later on if you decide that masturbating is more important than interacting with them. But generally speaking, masturbation is simply treating yourself to an orgasm without having sex. If you’re a virgin, you remain one after masturbating– but you have become more educated about what pleases you sexually, which means that when/if you do eventually have sex with someone else, you will be better equipped to know how they can please you. That’s taking care of yourself.

When you’re ready to actually have sex with someone– or rather if you are, since some people never want to have sex with someone, and live out their lives quite happily that way– taking care of yourself means making some demands of that person. No, not literally (unless you and your partner(s) are into that sort of thing). But there are certain things you’ll need to insist on, for your own well-being. The first and foremost being contraception. Contraception is not magical— it is a real thing that really prevents you from creating a pregnancy and, in certain forms, prevents you from catching or transmitting a sexually transmitted disease, when you use it correctly. The pregnancy thing is something you will be concerned about for most of your life– certainly now– and the disease thing is something you’ll be concerned about forever. So don’t let the embarrassment of talking about sex prevent you from taking care of yourself– this stuff is important. Using contraception doesn’t make you paranoid, judgmental, slutty, or a killjoy– it makes you smart. Don’t have sex with people who are not smart, or who don’t respect your desire to be. They are the judgmental killjoys, not you.

The other demand you need to be willing to make of your partners is that they listen to you, and don’t do things you’re not comfortable with. Because guess what? Sex is a relationship, and relationships have to be conducted according to the terms of the people involved in them. What you want matters, and you have veto power– always. You don’t get to force your partners to do things, but you can refuse to do things. Get comfortable with this power, so that you can use it without hesitation if the need comes up. Agreeing to hold hands with someone (yeah, I’m going back to the basics) doesn’t mean you agree to kiss them. Agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t mean you agree to have them touch your body. Agreeing to have them touch your body doesn’t mean agreeing to have your clothes taken off. And so on down the line. You can agree to these things, sure, but it’s not assumed. You always have the right to stop. Always. That’s you taking care of yourself.

Now let’s talk about taking care of others.

The best way you can take care of others is by remembering that it’s not all about you. Sex is not about getting what you want and forget everybody else. Other people and their sexual desires matter just as much as yours– they are not simply targets and obstacles in the way of targets. So forget about treating people like crap if they won’t sleep with you, or talking crap about other people because of who they sleep with or want to sleep with. Sexual competition– people wanting to sleep with the same people that other people do– exists. It’s a thing, and it’s nobody’s fault. If you get mad at some other girl for attracting the guy you like, you’re saying he doesn’t have the right to make his own choices. But he does, doesn’t he? Just like you do. So maybe you’re upset, and that’s fine– it’s upsetting to not get what you want. But you can’t require that the people you like have to like you back. That’s not fair to them, and just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it true. So take a deep breath, listen to some good music, and move on. That upsetness you’re feeling is called jealousy, and it’s understandable and natural but it can make people do some terrible things if they can’t deal with it. Don’t be one of those people.

Following in the line if “it’s not all about you,” you can take care of others by respecting their decisions. They’re allowed to like what and who they want to like. They’re allowed to sleep with who they want to sleep with, provided that person is agreeable, of course, and– here’s the most important thing– nobody is obligated to sleep with you. Ever. There is nothing you can do or say that makes a person owe you sex, and nothing they can do or say. There’s this term called “enthusiastic consent,” and what it means is that a potential sex partner should be just as into the idea of having sex with you as you are about having sex with them. If they’re not, something is wrong and you should stop. Does it suck to stop when you don’t want to? Yes, but it’s better than being the kind of person who tries to have sex with someone who doesn’t want it, or isn’t even conscious enough to express clearly (in words or in actions) that he or she wants it. Consent is agreeing to do something. If someone isn’t clearly agreeing or isn’t capable of agreeing and you go ahead anyway, that’s sexual assault or rape. Now you know. Do not forget.

You may have noticed that in all of this talk about how to be ethical sexually, I’ve said nothing about the wrong people to have sex with, or the wrong kind of sex to have with them. With one very important exception that I’ve stressed in different ways: the type of people to have sex with are those who are capable of consenting to have sex with you, and have done so. The kind of sex to have with them is the enthusiastically consenting kind. Beyond that, I haven’t said “Having sex with this sort of person is bad,” “Having sex with this many people is bad,” “Having sex at this point in your life is bad” (assuming, of course, that you’re a consenting adult yourself) or “Having this kind of sex is bad.”

And I’m not going to.

Because those statements do not fall within the bounds of taking care of yourself and taking care of others. Those statements, for that matter, often amount to the very opposite of taking care of yourself and others. They’re used to harm people who aren’t harming anyone themselves, and that is (you guessed it) bad.

To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a little about what was going on when I was a teenager and going through my own internal struggles about sex and sexuality. I went to high school in the mid-90’s. During that time the movies I saw included Philadelphia, Reality Bites, Threesome, and Jeffrey. You may not have seen all or even any of these movies, but here’s something they all have in common– they all feature at least one gay character. In every case it’s a man, and in two cases there’s a gay male character with AIDS. Because the mid-80’s was when the AIDS scare hit if you were paying attention, and the mid-90’s was when it hit if you weren’t. And I wasn’t– not until high school, anyway, when sex and sexuality really started mattering to me.

The third season of The Real World, back when reality shows were still something of a novelty, included a gay housemate called Pedro Zamora who was living with AIDS. As entertainment editor of the school newspaper I wrote about this, as well as another article on the experience of coming out as a gay high school student (which got me branded as a dyke by anonymous sources). I knew several gay fellow students, some out and some closeted, and dated one of them (you’re awesome, Jeremy). We founded a gay-straight alliance club at our school. I volunteered for the Red Cross as part of the National Honor Society program and my job was to go to local middle schools and give presentations on sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid them. We attended seminars on AIDS and met people living with it– gay men. A theater geek, I spent my summers working at Music Theater of Wichita, where the majority of my friends were gay men (and one lesbian). I got to know what they were like and what their relationships were like. And what they were like is: normal.

I’m telling you all of this because these are people who, it was being declared all over the place then and still sometimes is today, have been punished by God with a horrible disease for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong people.

Fuck that.

If God or the universe punished people for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong kind of people, do you know who would have AIDS? Rapists. Child molesters. And nobody else.

Actually that’s not true since AIDS doesn’t just affect the person who has it but also anyone that person has sexual intercourse with, which could include any future victims of a rapist or child molester. But you get my point– if God or the universe care what kind of sex you have, and with which kind of people, they clearly do not express it in any clear and unambiguous way in terms of physical afflictions. So don’t look to natural consequences to tell you what is moral or immoral sexually. Good people also experience STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and other sexual misfortunes. Those fall under the category of precautions you should take to take care of yourself; not judgments from above for doing something wrong.

Single question pop quiz:

Which of the following stops an STD transmission or the creation of an unplanned pregnancy?
a) being married
b) being straight
c) being a guy
c) having sex with only one person, or a small number of people
e) a condom

If you answered “e,” then you have grasped the relevant point of this section (and you’re also correct). Let me explain the answers a bit more:

  • Being married. A marriage is a contractual agreement between two people– usually opposite sex, but sometimes not– who have decided that they want to be together for the foreseeable future, usually with at least the pretense of being monogamous. However oftentimes they are not completely monogamous, and sometimes they’re even deliberately not monogamous. The vast majority of Americans will have sex before getting married, which statistically speaking includes you. Some of you, of course, will not ever get married. That being the case, marriage– while a wonderful thing for many people– cannot be counted upon as a reliable way to avoid diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Especially unplanned pregnancies. 
  • Being straight. AIDS became known as a “gay disease” because it’s more easily transmissible via anal sex, and anal sex– it was and still is often assumed– is how the gays do it. But here’s a little secret for you: straight people have anal sex too, and plenty of gay people don’t! Yes, lesbians, but a lot of gay men aren’t into it either. Lesbians, for that matter, have the lowest rates of STD transmission of any sexually active group. And when it comes to avoiding unplanned pregnancies, gay sex is unquestionably a better method. 
  • Being a guy. I don’t actually think that anyone believes being a guy is, in itself, a way to avoid STDs or unplanned pregnancies. But there’s no shortage of people who act like neither one is or should be a concern for guys, because after all they’re not the one who gets pregnant. And if someone is going to be suspected of being infected with STDs based on their sexual behavior, it will invariably be a girl. More on this in the next point.
  • Having sex with only one person, or a small number of people. Promiscuity is far and away the factor most people assume to be the cause of STD transmission or unplanned pregnancy, but strangely the already strong assumption of this becomes even stronger when we’re talking about a girl. It’s as if we manage to forget that transmission of an STD requires two people, two straight people if we’re talking about an unplanned pregnancy. The next time you hear someone characterize prostitutes or promiscuous women as disease-ridden, think about this. Who did they get these presumed diseases from? In any case, the real determining factor is not the number of partners, but whether contraception is used and used correctly. A person who has sex with multiple partners but does so safely is taking care of him/herself better than someone who has sex with one person without contraception. (If you’re interested in learning more about STD transmission in prostitutes– more accurately, the lack thereof– who use contraception, check out Alexa Albert’s excellent book Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women). 
  • A condom. At this point, I think this is self-explanatory.

A condom has tremendous advantages. They’re (comparatively) inexpensive and can prevent both STDs and  pregnancy, and don’t require a prescription. However, condoms can break. They’re expensive given that you need to open and use a new one each time you have sex, and some people manage to use them incorrectly. So my recommendation would be: use backup. If you’re a girl, there are several options– the pill is most popular, but you might investigate Norplant, NuvaRing, and IUDs as well. See a gynecologist. Make this your priority if you’re even thinking you might have sex sometime soon. And when you talk to him/her, don’t be afraid or embarrassed– his/her job is to make sure you’re healthy, to help you take care of yourself. There should be no judgment involved, and if there is, find another doctor.

There are important things this post hasn’t covered: Alternative sexuality. Abortion. Slut-shaming generally. How to talk to your parents about all of this, and what they expect (and why). But hopefully I’ve gotten across the main point I was trying to address, which is that the morality of sexuality is not really about what people often pretend it’s about. Ultimately, what matters is the consequences of the decisions you make for yourself, and for others. In all of the judging, there’s a stunning lack of taking care going on out there. And that’s not only also important; it’s most important.

So please….take care.

It’s very simple, really. Really.

So the conversation about sexual harassment at skeptical conferences continues on Freethought Blogs, and doesn’t show any sign of ending soon. And it has turned to the topic of what constitutes sexual harassment is generally, what people in charge can do about it, and how to avoid being guilty of it. That’s a good discussion to have…it’s just that it’s not a new discussion, and it’s not a radically different concept from how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace, though it’s kind of bizarre how many people are acting as if it is.

A new person was added to the network, Thunderf00t (no, I don’t know why he spells it like that) who makes Youtube videos on skepticism. In his second post ever as part of the network, what Thunderf00t did was effectively take a flying leap and land right in the middle of a very complex and lengthy discussion, and in doing so he splattered ignorance all over the place. Ignorance of the specific conversation about TAM and DJ Grothe, which is entirely understandable and which I don’t think anyone needs to have knowledge of in order to talk about sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies generally, but also a much less forgivable kind of ignorance– that of what sexual harassment is, and why it still is that even when you add 1) alcohol and 2) fun. Thunderf00t is, you see, quite certain that policies against sexual harassment will be the end of fun, especially while drinking alcohol. So basically he did a big cannonball dive of “I don’t care to even find out what you guys think or have been saying first” right in the deep end of rational discussion, and then he did so again with a follow-up post about PZ Myers after Myers pointed out what was wrong with the first one.

To wit:

And maybe most pertinently, PZ explaining why his policy wouldn’t be a killjoy.

 If you want to chew on some woman’s leg, no, you don’t have to consult the conference handbook.”
“You have to fucking consult the woman.”

Facepalm.  Yes this is exactly why you are killjoys to the VAST majority of civil, honest respectable folks.  IT WAS IN A BAR.  I enjoyed it, she enjoyed it (she left a comment specifically saying so, just to remove all doubt (see MyLegMYCHOICE!)), AND I NEVER HAD TO CONSULT HER, NOR APPLY FOR PERMISSION FROM THE CONFERENCE, IN ORDERS SIGNED IN TRIPLICATE SENT IN, SENT BACK AND BURIED IN SOFT PEAT FOR THREE MONTHS AND RECYCLED AS FIRELIGHTERS etc etc.  Indeed had I had to fill in the paperwork along with ‘permission to bite your leg in a horseplay photo’ form under conference interpersonal contact rule 144 b) 2, it would have probably kinda killed the moment, and neither I nor she would have got our mild thrills for the night.  It’s boys n girls have fun in bars! Look I’ll make it simple, the point of a bar isn’t to make everyone maximally safe (indeed if it were, they would ban bars, as it would be far safer if everyone just stayed at home and did nothing), it’s to let everyone have the most amount of fun.  The reason people don’t go to bars that are maximally safe, is because they are DULL, with folks always living in fear of crossing some random rule written by  some hypersensitive pencil-necked PC jockey.

Man, I hate caps for emphasis. Don’t do it– that’s what italics are for. Use them, so you don’t look like the Unabomber crossed with a chimpanzee. Kaczynski couldn’t help it because he was using a typewriter, but if you’ve got a computer, you have the capacity to use italics! Although if you italicized every word that is capitalized here, it would simply change what looks like a person screaming at the top of his lungs to someone hissing like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Okay, let’s go through the problems with this:

1. “Consult” obviously does not mean filling out documents, as Myers just got done pointing out– not with the conference, not with the woman, not with anybody. Consulting someone means (wait for it) obtaining consent. Yes, it’s that magical word again! And it’s really not a difficult concept. It’s so easy a concept, in fact, that I refuse to believe that Thunderf00t didn’t get it loud and clear from the woman whose leg he bit, and that it was even important to him at the time to get it so as not to come off like an obnoxious creep doing what is technically battery if the recipient is unwilling. You bite a stranger on the leg; you get arrested. There’s a reason for that. And hopefully nobody, including Thunderf00t, wants things any other way.

2. The fact that this is a bar we’re talking about changes precisely nothing. It’s still illegal to bite a stranger’s leg in a bar, regardless of how drunk you are or she is. Groping someone at a bar– any bar– is still not okay if they’re not willing. People go to bars for a lot of reasons, and for some of those people the reasons involve horseplay. For others it doesn’t, and last I checked both groups of people are allowed at most bars. You don’t just assume that a person is up for it without an indication from them, because that’s an excellent way to get booted out of the establishment and because it’s just, you know, wrong.

3. An interesting remark in the comment thread for a post at Almost Diamonds:

When you mention kink here, it just reminds me of another ironic aspect of all this. Thunderf00t is prattling on about how consulting women or setting boundaries (via harassment policies) is prohibiting ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’ But actual kink/BDSM–which I think would be clearly agreed upon by most is definitely one example of ‘boys n’ girls having fun.’–is founded on the idea of consent and boundaries. Because clearly defined consent and boundaries are what make it fun for all parties involved. (Didn’t Greta post something on exactly that subject recently, a kink/sexuality con that had very clear policies and guidelines?) And exactly how does ‘people letting their hair down’ prohibit making everyone ‘maximally safe’? Why does fun = unsafe? You know, I’m pretty sure that even bungee-jumping has safety rules and procedures. Why is there an assumption that respecting personal boundaries means eliminating flirtation and sexual innuendo? Why does being in a bar eliminate the need for consent? And why…ay. I can’t even begin to cover the fail. Why is so something so simple so difficult for people to comprehend?! 

Indeed– it shouldn’t be difficult at all, but the fact that safety is so heavily emphasized in kinky/swinger/BDSM circles is good to note. People who are involved in these groups generally take safety very seriously, because they know the risk of what could happen if they don’t. People could get hurt, physically or emotionally or both. Some people have more fun when the stakes are high, but what goes along with that fun is the necessity of making sure that everybody’s okay and enjoying what is happening. A lot of swingers’ groups don’t even allow single men to attend, because the ultimate concern is that the women who attend feel safe, and they’re not likely to feel safe if the men attending are radically more numerous (no, I don’t know this from experience…I read about it in Skipping Towards Gomorrah).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record yet again– safety isn’t the enemy of fun in a sexual context; it’s a requirement for fun for women, and should therefore be a requirement for men. If it isn’t, that’s the kind of man women fear rather than wanting to have fun with. A man who doesn’t give a damn about consent is bad news, and I wonder how the woman whose leg Thunderf00t bit– with her consent apparently, whether he asked for it or not– feels about the knowledge that he doesn’t consider it necessary to have. Actually, again as I said, he probably does. He just seems to be stunningly unaware of that fact, and how important it is.

What’s wrong with “Don’t rape”

This post is about why I don’t like this sign:

Trigger warning: A detailed discussion of rape and morality to follow.
Maybe you’ve seen it making the rounds on Facebook or Tumblr. It’s popped up for me a few times, and each time I cringe, but don’t comment to explain why because I’m afraid that my comments will be interpreted to suggest that I disagree with it. I don’t, but I need to some room to say what my problem with it is.
First, I get what the sign (and the person holding it, though I have no idea who she is) is trying to say. The ever-present concern with advising women on how to protect themselves from being raped is that you run the risk of treating rape like a natural disaster. Like some act of God (no, I’m not going to delve too deeply into that) that is just going to happen, no matter what we do, but here are some measures you can take to make it less likely to happen to you. Like rape is a thing that happens; it’s not a thing that some people do to other people. That’s a really bad way to portray it, because it removes the agency from the rapists. If you hear someone complaining about blaming the victim, that’s what she’s talking about– all responsibility for a rape belongs on the rapist, and there are a lot of ways, some of them bizarrely well-intentioned, that end up placing at least some of it on the victim instead. She shouldn’t have been out drinking late. She shouldn’t have been so easy with other guys. She shouldn’t have allowed that guy to take her home instead of her boyfriend. He or she shouldn’t have committed a crime and gotten sent to prison– prison rape is a phenomenon that is often celebrated for males and ignored for females, and I’m not sure which is worse. Even for people who are rapists themselves– there were “jokes” flying around on Friday about Jerry Sandusky’s fate in prison after being convicted of child abuse, and also attempts to shame those making the jokes. The shamers understood that if you are willing to excuse rape under any circumstance, even or especially to laugh about it happening to someone who committed it himself, you detract from the seriousness of rape against every victim. You add a little bit of credibility to the claim that any of them deserved it, and that is unacceptable.
That’s clear and simple, or at least it should be. I prefer things to be clear and simple, as most people do. I favor simplicity to the extent that I think if you can’t explain something simply you probably don’t really understand it yourself, which is not a predominant view in academia but it does explain why my dissertation was short. So you’d think I would be a big fan of the sign above, but I can’t be, because this is a case in which ambiguity is really important. Ambiguity should always be cut out of the picture except when you can’t, and I think this is a time when you can’t. Here’s why:
Rapists don’t always know they’re rapists. So telling them “Don’t rape” will not work, because they don’t realize it applies to them. 
Yes, really. In order to unpack that I’m going to need to compare rape to murder, but I hope it’s clear in which regards I think they’re similar and in which I think they are different. See, murder is wrongful killing. The dictionary says it’s illegal killing, but you and I both know that murder would still be murder even if it wasn’t against the law. We know what abortion foes are talking about when they call abortion murder, even if we don’t agree with them. We know what PETA means when it says that people who wear fur or eat meat are accessories to murder, even if we do one or both ourselves. Killing, however, is not always wrong and even abortion foes and PETA are aware of that. The same people who oppose abortion are often just fine with soldiers killing each other on the battlefield or being sent to the electric chair after receiving a death sentence, and they generally would not say no to a big juicy steak if you set one in front of them. The same people who refuse the steak, oppose all war, and regard the death penalty as abhorrent likely see nothing wrong with pulling the plug on someone in a persistent and final vegetative state, mentally. Possibly they would also regard it as acceptable to allow a person in constant pain with no solutions to end his or her life, though the war-mongering meat-eating abortion opponent might shriek in protest. Killing is not necessarily wrong. 
Sex is also not necessarily wrong– you’re probably not enjoying the fact that I feel compelled to point this out, because sex should never be wrong. But sex with a child is wrong, and sex with an adult unwilling partner is wrong. It’s so wrong that a lot of opponents of both of these things want to claim that it’s not even sex, because it’s not “about” sexual desire. It’s about power, they say. I get why they say that, and I think it goes to the heart of what’s so wrong about sex without consent– it robs the victim of his/her ability to have control over his/her own body. It takes that control away, and places it squarely in the hands of the rapist. It makes the victim’s body simply a tool for the rapist to use, and in doing so the rapist utterly dehumanizes his/her victim. The rapist renders him/her a non-person, and the victim has to live with the fact of having experienced that for the rest of his/her life. Even if the victim can’t comprehend it at the time of the event, he/she will have this knowledge later. That’s why it’s wrong, even if the experience involves no physical damage or overt threat of such. That’s why it’s still rape even if the victim doesn’t emerge bruised and bloody, or was fourteen years old and not six. That’s why consent matters. 
I apologize for saying what probably seems blatantly obvious, and you may think I’m insulting your intelligence just now. If that’s the case I really am sorry, but the fact remains that it’s not obvious to everyone. It’s not obvious to people who compare sex between people of the same gender to sex between an adult and a child or an adult and an animal, and it’s not obvious to rapists. Yes, they might get what’s wrong with leaping out of a dark alley and attacking some woman walking by, but that’s not how most rapes happen. Most rapes are called “acquaintance rapes” because they happen between people who know each other. People who have spent time together before, know each other’s names, may have even expressed an interest in dating. I don’t think that the men (usually men) in these situations who force sex on a woman generally think that what they’re doing is rape. They think it’s “rough sex,” or not even that– that the woman who said no, or was unconscious or very drunk at the time, or was underage but seemed like she wanted it, and had had sex before, was either a willing partner or a partner who didn’t need to be willing. And they apparently think this a lot:

If a survey asks men, for example, if they ever “had sexual intercourse with somone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances,” some of them will say yes, as long as the questions don’t use the “R” word. . . The men in your lives will tell you what they do. As long as the R word doesn’t get attached, rapists do self-report. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. He’s telling you how he sees it. The guy who says, “bros before hos”, is asking you to make a pact. The Pact. The social structure that allows the predators to hide in plain sight, to sit at the bar at the same table with everyone, take a target home, rape her, and stay in the same social circle because she can’t or won’t tell anyone, or because nobody does anything if she does. The pact to make excuses, to look for mitigation, to patch things over — to believe that what happens to our friends — what our friends do to our friends — is not (using Whoopi Goldberg’s pathetic apologetics) “rape-rape”. 

So the solution, as I see it, is not to say “Don’t rape.” Or rather, not to say just that. You absolutely have to say what rape is and what’s wrong with it as well, because some people really don’t know. And you have to say it often, and guys…you have to say it to your friends. You have to say it so that they don’t have a Pact, and don’t operate under the illusion that they do. It isn’t good enough to simply hate rapists and publicly wish for every horrible thing you can think of (including rape) to happen to them– that’s allowing the most obvious and acknowledged perpetrators of sexual violence to act as scapegoats for the rest, for the “accidental” rapists. It’s actually disturbing rather than touching to see explicit declarations of how much someone would like to punish a convicted rapist, especially a child molester, when they come from men who generally seem to regard women’s sexual consent…loosely. It suggests that their regard is more for women and children’s “innocence” than their autonomy. Hint: rape isn’t bad because it leaves a person tainted. It’s bad because he/she didn’t choose it. Yes, being raped can certainly make a person feel tainted, but that’s an artifact of both his/her control having been taken away and the bizarre, sad cultural construct of sexual purity which says that sex– especially virginity-removing sex– somehow permanently changes a person, usually a woman, into something…lesser. Something worldly, and therefore a little more profane and a little less sacred. Sex is necessary according to this thinking because we can’t make the babies without it (yet), but it lowers a person– especially if they have a lot of it, or enjoy it too much, or have no intention of making babies using it, ever. This is called puritanism, and it’s the friend of pastor and pornographer alike.

But I digress. Point being…we can’t just say “Don’t rape.” We may not be able to stop it altogether, like we’re not going to stop murder, but we can do a lot more toward that end by articulating what it is, why it’s wrong, and not accommodating the thinking that enables it.

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