[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.
Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Affirmative Action Rant

A few days ago, the Daily Northwestern published a column called “Affirmative Action Dangerously Shortsighted.” It was predictably awful and spawned 269 (mostly dissenting) comments as of now.

Some excerpts:

I oppose the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the workplace and essentially any other setting. I am pleased that Fisher had the courage to revive this discussion, given the almost certainty that our hypersensitive, obsessively-politically-correctsociety would be quick to brand any white person willing to challenge this biased system of admissions as racist. In its effort to remedy the lingering effects of a more racially segregated past where one skin color was preferred over another, affirmative action has become its own insidious form of discrimination where the preference is not for one skin color over another, but for skin color over merit.  And merit be damned as the country continues to self-medicate with affirmative action to relieve its guilt over a history of which most living today were not even a part.

[…]The presumed racism of upper-middle-class white people is drastically misaligned. In fact, today, in terms of direct statements of discrimination and disdain, one is more likely to hear disapproving sneers about “rich white people” than anything derogatory about minorities. There certainly is no shortage of people who identify Mitt Romney and “his people” as disgusting, horrible people who deserve no respect but rather a plethora of unflattering associations.

[…]UT rejected Abigail Fisher based on merit, but she says merit that was racialized – that is, merit categorized by racially motivated academic skews in a way that rejected Abigail in favor of lesser-qualified minority applicants with lower standards to meet.

I won’t try to pick apart all the baseless claims in this article; my friend Mauricio has done that quite well.

Here’s the thing. Nobody likes affirmative action. I would call it a necessary evil except I prefer to save the word “evil” for things like Todd Akin.

I don’t like affirmative action. But you know what I like even less?

That’s right, racism. (Total buzzkill, that.)

Racism has two definitions–the popular one and the academic one. The popular definition is that racism is disliking another person based on their race. By this definition, white people who dislike black people are racists, and black people who dislike white people are racists.

This is the only definition of racism that Zink seems to know.

The academic definition of racism is much more complex. It’s a system of societal inequality based on race, in which non-white people are not afforded the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, justice, or respect as are white people. By this definition, white people are racist if they support this system explicitly or tacitly. People of color, however, cannot be racist under this definition, because there is no structural oppression of white people in this society.

This–not the first definition–is what affirmative action is designed to address.

Although this system of racial inequality intersects with classism, or class-based societal inequality, people of color of any class still face certain disadvantages compared to their white neighbors. For instance, they are more likely to be pulled over (and beaten) by the police for “looking suspicious.” They are more likely to be followed around by store employees who are concerned that they’ll steal something. If they choose to keep their hair in an afro or wear traditional dress from their culture, they may be looked down upon in the workplace. Even their “ethnic-sounding” names can make it more difficult for them to get jobs. If that’s not discrimination, I really don’t know what is.

But where racism intersects with classism, the disadvantages are even more apparent. People of color are much more likely than whites to be poor, which means that they are much less likely to have access to good schools and jobs, be able to afford college, and live in safe neighborhoods. Poverty is thought to contribute to the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African Americans (along, of course, with racial profiling), because it means they’re much less likely to be able to afford legal counsel.

All of these factors–and so many more–make it more difficult for students of color to be accepted into universities, especially top-tier universities. All that stuff I did as a teenager that helped me get into college–extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, gifted summer camps, AP classes, a research internship in Israel–are things that a poor student of color is very unlikely to be able to access and afford.

That’s why we need affirmative action.

People like Zink keep complaining that whenever anyone speaks out against affirmative action, they get labeled either ignorant or racist. Nope. You could, for instance, make the argument that affirmative action should be based solely on class, not on race. I suppose you could even make an intelligent case against affirmative action in its entirety, although I haven’t personally seen one. But that’s not what this Daily column did.

If you make a coherent argument based on actual evidence, people may disagree with you, but they won’t call you ignorant or racist.

However. If you argue that affirmative action is unnecessary because there’s no racism anymore, then you’re ignorant, because racism is demonstrably still an issue.

This broken fire hydrant is the best visual representation of Mitt Romney’s privilege.

And if you argue that affirmative action is wrong because “I had this one friend who was like super qualified but didn’t get the job she applied for and some black chick got it instead,” then you’re racist, because you’re assuming that there’s no possible way “some black chick” could be more qualified than your one friend.

And don’t even get me started on Zink’s ludicrous assertion that people who make “disapproving sneers” about Mitt Romney are somehow being reverse racists. We don’t criticize Romney because he’s rich and white. We criticize him because he spews his privilege around like a broken fire hydrant.

Affirmative Action Rant

[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

Continue reading “[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education”

[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Hey, you know what will help teens avoid pregnancy? Comprehensive sex education, right?


Here’s Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican in the Texas state house:

What I think is that that’s unconstitutional. Apparently many other readers of Rep. Riddle’s Facebook page thought so too, and told her in no uncertain terms, because she followed up with this:

OK, enough already. My friend Mary – a teacher – not as conservative as I am – has mentioned how many of her students have no foundation of faith and are having babies at 15 – plus so many more problems. She has stated that with no foundation of faith these kids are a drift [sic]. Knowing how sensative [sic] folks are about prayer and ect. [sic] I thought a simple reading of Proverbs – a book of wisdom – would be helpful. I certainly did not intend to offend – I was just throwing out an idea.

She then waxes Jeremiac (I made that word up) about “the level of disrespect in today’s world” (as opposed to yesterday’s world, when rather than posting a mean comment on someone’s Facebook, you challenged them to a duel and possibly killed them) and the importance of “open discussion” (except, apparently, when people disagree with you).

Several things.

1. Apparently you don’t have to understand basic grammar, spelling, and writing style in order to be elected to public office. Seriously, I know this is a nitpicky point compared to the rest of what I’m about to cover, but most of us learned to spell “sensitive” in elementary school.

And to think that Riddle wants to take time out of every school day to read Proverbs. Clearly, there are more pressing problems with Texas education.

2. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Republicans seem to only focus on the second part of that inconvenient part of the First Amendment: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But that first part is pretty damn important. Our Supreme Court has determined that forcing children to observe religion in public schools violates the establishment clause. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), school-mandated prayer was struck down; in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), school-mandated Bible reading was struck down as well.

So, although Riddle has now had nearly 40 years to get used to the latter ruling, she apparently has failed to do so. And no, school prayer was not “tossed” because it’s not “politically correct,” but because it violates our Constitution. There’s a difference.

3. Jesus does not prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex ed does. It also does a lot of other cool stuff, like help prevent STI transmission and sexual assault, but that’s besides the point.

Here’s another interesting thing. According to Gallup, the most religious state in the U.S. is Mississippi. According to the CDC, the state with the highest teenage birthrate is…Mississippi.


Even supposing that this is a fluke, it’s a well-known fact that other states with high levels of religiosity tend to have high rates of teenage pregnancy and birth, as well. Of course, this is all correlation and not causation–except for the fact that religious states tend to have abstinence-only sex ed, which does not work.

Now, Rep. Riddle’s friend Mary, who is of course a credible source because she is “not as  conservative” than Riddle (and because this isn’t anecdotal at all) claims that it’s specifically the godless heathens who are getting themselves pregnant. Leaving aside the question of how Mary manages to divine the religious beliefs and observance level of her students–and avoid confirmation bias–the information I have just presented about teenage birthrates in religious states seems to refute her point. Why would nonreligious teens only get pregnant en masse in religious states, but not in nonreligious states? And if they do, what does that say about the environment these states create?

4. The United States was not “built on Christian and Jewish values.” While most of the Founding Fathers identified at least nominally with Christianity, that does not mean that they based the entire nation upon it. Many of them were either deists or anti-clerical Christians, so it’s hard to imagine them supporting state-mandated religious observance. Historian Gregg L. Frazer, meanwhile, argues that the Founding Fathers subscribed to a belief system he calls “theistic rationalism,” which combines religion with reason (a feature mostly lacking in Christian fundamentalism).

Interestingly enough, despite our nation’s supposed “Christian foundation,” the Constitution contains not one mention of the words “God” or “Christianity.” The only time it uses the word “religion” is in the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of–and from–it.

On a side note, can we stop lumping Judaism in with Christianity? These two religions are really quite different. And to suggest that anyone had the Jews in mind when establishing the United States is simply laughable, given how long it took for institutionalized antisemitism to find its way out of our country.

5. Proverbs is hardly the harmless book of “wisdom” Riddle thinks it is. Here are some quotations:

  • “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” (Proverbs 20:30)
  • “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
  • “Give beer to those who are perishing and wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6-7)

The first two certainly make sense given the Texas GOP platform‘s ringing endorsement of corporal punishment. As for the latter, I was under the impression that religious Republicans think that people who drink alcohol when they’re under 21 are sinners too.

Overall, an admittedly cursory reading of Proverbs reveals it to be mostly gibberish. I can think of many better things to require schoolchildren to read if you want to teach them about wisdom and morality. I’m personally a huge fan of Nietzsche. But you’re free to disagree.

Also, the idea of Nietzsche ever being taught in a Texas public school is sadly unlikely.

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist

In case it’s not obvious, MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for this entire post and all outgoing links. Even if you’re not a survivor, you’re going to find a lot of this extremely uncomfortable and upsetting so please take care of yourself.

r/AskReddit, a section of Reddit in which people can ask each other questions, recently had a post with this title: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

Reddit has what I would call, bluntly, a woman problem. Reddit’s users are 74% male, first of all–the highest percentage of all the well-known social networks. Many of its subreddits, such as r/MensRights, r/Atheism, and, of course, r/AskReddit, are notorious for general misogyny, rape apologism, and, at times, even tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of violence against women, pedophilia, child pornography.

So, nobody familiar with Reddit will be surprised at the kinds of stories and comments that this AskReddit thread has attracted. However, it’s worth talking about for several reasons, which I’ll explain later.

The thread has nearly 13,000 comments as of this writing, so I couldn’t possibly read them all. (I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind long before I finished, anyway.) However, there’s one particular comment that I want to examine:

First off, I must say, I was at a dark and horrible place in my life, that I’ve since grown from. I’m ashamed of the person I was, if the people who I’m close to now knew who I was, I would be ruined. I’m known for being a great guy, friendly and easy to get along with, a community/political activist, a fervent volunteer in the community, and a person who rises through the ranks quickly due to successes at work. That was my mask, and I was good at it, so good that maybe I convinced myself along the line that was who I could really be, and that may of helped me change, and stop doing what I did.

I’m somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don’t think I could ever face them to apologize. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.

Several things immediately jump out at me. First of all–and this will be a common theme throughout the post–this person seems very invested in his positive self-image, despite his supposed remorse. He makes sure that we know that he’s known as a “great guy,” that he’s friendly and easy to get along with, etc. Second, although he says he’s ashamed of who he was back then, the rest of this suggests that that’s mostly because he wouldn’t want to be found out. The creepiest part is definitely this: “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that bought me to do what I did.”

The post continues:

I’m a good looking guy, and I can get girls pretty easily. I’m currently married to a beautiful woman that I met during this time of my life (not someone I raped, but someone who knew my mask during this time). So, anyways, after a while it became boring to go after the sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you. I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls. I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks….Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing. So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them.

Note that, once again, he mentions his good looks and that it’s easy for him to “get girls” (present tense). His misogyny becomes apparent in his language here (“sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you”).

The man then describes how he would meet these girls and invite them over to watch a movie. His need to have total control over the situation is very apparent: “They would come over, and I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us.”

After kissing and putting his hands under their clothes (without consent, obviously):

It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.

[…]Some girls left after about 15 minutes after. Some girls would stay until the morning and then leave. A few tried to call back, maybe blaming themselves for what happened or something. I never worried too much about being caught. Everyone knew me, and I worked with the police a lot, with administrators, and campus officials. I was on first name basis with the Chancellor and the President of Student Affairs, so if anything came down to a he/she-said I figured I’d be in the clear.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is rape culture: the fact that this man knew he was unlikely to be brought to justice because he was so respected and popular at school, the fact that he admits that some of the women probably blamed themselves, the fact that he knows that they don’t say no out of fear and not because they consent.

The man later edited the post to explain that he had answered questions posed by commenters and that he was deleting this account (it had been made only for this purpose, though, anyway). He also added this:

Let me leave you with this message, you never know who someone truly is, so be careful. I’m going back to my main account to do normal reddit looking at cats and posting pictures of bacon, and I think it’s kind of funny that no one will ever know if the person they’re talking to on reddit, or someone who moderates their subreddit, is me on my main account… just food for thought.

Most of the comments to his post were very angry, and many were basically homicidal. One person said, “You are why my daughter will be armed, to deal with filth like you.” The man responded, “Teach your daughter to be a strong willed, independent woman, and hopefully she’ll never attract the type of filth I was at that point in my life.” In other words, even though he claimed to be “remorseful,” he admits that he sought out “weak” women and seems to believe that it’s women’s responsibility to be “strong willed” enough for men like him to leave them alone.

In the midst of the angry comments, though, there were many that seemed steeped in admiration–or, at least, respect. References to the OP’s “bravery” were common. Here’s one: “Thank you for sharing. This is what I came to this thread for. You are brave to talk about it. Here is an actual look into how the predator feels.” Here’s another: “I just wanna say, thank you for posting this. It seems that every other guy in this thread is trying to guilt shame you but I’m pretty sure a total of none of them could possibly empathize with you.” And another: “I admit you are a really smart guy. I bet you know it yourself and probably are ashamed of it since you used it to do this. You are also really brave for sharing this story and being here to take the generic ‘fuck you’ from the mass.”

There seems to be some confusion on the part of these commenters about what “brave” means. What’s brave is getting up the next morning after you’ve been raped, and getting up every day after that. What’s brave is telling people about your sexual assault, knowing full well that they might ask you what you were wearing and if you’d been drinking. What’s brave is trusting another person sexually after an experience like that. Using a temporary, anonymous account to tell some people on the internet about what a Big Manly Man you are is not “brave.”

As a survivor of something much less horrific than what these young women went through, but scarring all the same, I can’t see the telling of this story as “brave.” Perhaps that’s just my bias talking.

Also disturbing is the fact that many of the commenters refuse to believe the story. One even asked the OP if he’s “a female IRL trying to make a point with this.” Others laugh it off. Their disbelief reveals their privilege. Most women will tell you that there is nothing unrealistic about this story, because they have either been victimized by men like this, escaped them narrowly (as I did), or have friends who did.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, several commenters jumped to the man’s defense, explaining how “difficult” it is to be a man and to interpret women’s signals and to get women to sleep with you, period. One comment:

This isn’t rape. This is the story of a guy who studied and played the game well. He went after certain girls and worked those angles to get laid. Some people will feel this is underhanded, sleezy, wrong. Others will praise him.

[…]These girls aren’t victims. OP’s behavior may be considered unethical, immoral, and wrong but that’s only moral constructs perceived by others looking at OP. I’m not a player these days but those of you blasting him for rape need to read some player’s books and websites. He did exactly why most players do.

[…]Overall OP isn’t a rapist, he’s a player who feels bad about how good he was at the game.

Another: “What the hell. You’re NOT A RAPIST! The didn’t say no. They wanted it. You’re a player. Actually, they should thank you because that’s probably the only sex those girls will get. You gave them a life experience and you should be proud about it.” And this: “I’ve been told this by female friends – girls purposely put up a bit of a fight before sex to not seem easy, even if they want sex, and they enjoy the back and forth and having the guy ‘try’.”

And one more:

Not defending his actions, but nearly every 19 year old college kid with a dick and a heartbeat is trying to get laid, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has some sort of game plan they employ to coerce women into advantageous situations that their female counterpart might not want to be in, or otherwise find themselves in. Whether its through physical force or mental manipulation, some game plans fail miserably and some work every time. Some guys are obviously better than others at getting what they want, and some of course cross the line.

There’s many, many more where all of these came from. There was also the comments from rape survivors, to one of which the OP responded with some explanation followed by, “Anyways, fuck off you twit.” (How about that remorse?)

I should point out that this particular man’s post, and the responses to it, are unusual for several reasons. Most of the other people who disclosed having committed sexual assault (including some women) were more remorseful and generally did it only once. Some told stories of having nearly done it but stopped themselves. And the comments on those posts are much less condemnatory, and more full of apologism and praises of the rapists’ “bravery.”

Jezebel has a post about the thread and why we should listen to the rapists’ explanations. The article makes a good point in that the thread shows many of the reasons why rape happens and goes unpunished, and the cognitive fallacies that rapists subscribe to.

However, the article fails to note the negative consequences of sharing these stories on a site like Reddit. As I mentioned, Reddit users have a tendency for rape apologism. Many of the people who confessed having committed or attempted sexual assault said that they felt terrible for what they did, but commenters told them not to feel bad. The stories of backing off rather than raping elicited lots of “Congrats, you didn’t rape her!” comments–as if that’s something worthy of a gold star. One comment to such a story reads, “Shitty situation, man. Good on you for realizing what was up and pulling yourself out of that.” Another: “You aren’t a rapist, or close really, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

In other words, men (they were almost all men) who come to this thread with genuine remorse receive dozens of comments patting them on the back for not going ahead and sticking their penis into an unwilling woman–all the other nonconsensual stuff they did leading up to that, apparently, doesn’t really matter. (Although some of these commenters insist that the women couldn’t possibly have been hurt that much by it because they weren’t “actually” raped, I can speak from experience and say that attempted rape (or rape threats, or sexual harassment) can be traumatizing too.)

Furthermore, some of the apologism is directed at men who did actually commit sexual assault, and it really scares me that these men are getting the message that what they did was “not rape.”

It’s taken me a while to write about this because it’s been difficult to come up with any takeaway other than aisfa;ifja;sdfjas;df. However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I think there are a few things to glean from this.

  1. Rapists usually know what they’re doing. Although there’s a pervasive myth that rape is caused by “miscommunication” (generally, women not being “clear” enough about not giving consent), this thread and this fascinating study show that this is completely false. They know what they’re doing, most of the time. But they don’t really care. They think they “can’t stop” because having a penis just “makes” you do these things. They convince themselves that the woman would say no (or say it louder) if she really didn’t want to do it. And so on.
  2. Rapists aren’t necessarily identifiable. None of the men in this thread seem like your stereotypical stranger in a dark alley type. Many of them have the ability to be very personable and likable, and they use this ability to their advantage. (This is, by the way, a symptom of psychopathy.) So, not only is the standard victim-blamey advice for women to avoid revealing clothing, bars, parties, etc. wrong, but it’s also ludicrous to suggest that women can avoid sexual assault by avoiding “certain types” of guys. Some victimizers (of any gender) certainly do give off a creepy vibe, but not all do.
  3. Sexual assault prevention is a very, very complicated thing, and I don’t think it’s as simple as “telling rapists not to rape.” As boys and young men grow up, they learn a series of messages about gender and sexuality, just like women do. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend reading Brad Perry’s piece in the fantastic book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. The piece is called “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn ) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved.” (Holy shit that’s a long title.) You can read it here. The piece focuses on teaching sexuality to boys in a way that prevents rape and promotes a healthy approach to women, dating, and sex. Unfortunately, right now our country is still besieged by abstinence-only sex education, which promotes rape culture in a million ways that I don’t have room to discuss here.
  4. Despite all the comments that “well everyone knows rape is bad” and therefore we should stop shaming rapists, it’s clear that there’s a sort of doublethink going on here. Yes, almost all people, except the most psychopathic perhaps, know that rape is “bad.” But many convince themselves that things that are definitely rape are not. Cognitive dissonance does scary things to people sometimes–they want what they want at all costs, but they don’t want to believe that they’re Bad People (i.e. rapists). Nope, they’re just “playing the game,” or the victim “should’ve said no (louder),” or “she wanted it anyway.”

So no. Even decades after the start of the modern women’s movement, not everyone knows what rape is. And that’s how we know that our work is not yet done.

All I know is that we need real sex education, and we need it now. We need to start it early. We need to stop believing that teaching kids about safe and healthy sex will “make” them do it. We need to stop teaching them gender roles that put women into the role of sexual gatekeepers, always needing to push their male partners off rather than being asked for consent first, and men into the role of aggressors, always needing to coerce their female partners or face losing their masculinity.

Mostly, though, we need to teach empathy in general. Because that’s lacking in our society in every possible way.

And this needs to happen now.

Note: This has been really difficult to write for many reasons, but I felt that I needed to do it. There will be extra comment moderation. Anyone who comes on here to explain to me how I “don’t understand” these men and their actions will be sent on their merry way. Thank you.

Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist

More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I'm Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. 🙂

More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I'm Choosing Social Work

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B's

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B's