Why Would Men Fear Women With High Sex Drives?

There’s a study going around online about how men in relationships with women get worried if their partner is “too horny.” The actual study, it appears, is much more complicated, but I can’t read it because I no longer have institutional access to research papers. Hooray! Regardless of what’s in the study, though, this is how it’s being reported, so that’s what I’m responding to. The Mic headline reads, “Study says straight men worry if their girlfriends are ‘too’ horny, because sexism,” and the article goes on in that vein.

I don’t doubt that there are men out there who think their female partners’ sex drive is inappropriately high simply because they believe that women ought to be practically asexual, or at least pretend to be for the sake of modesty, and that anything other than that is “emasculating” or whatever.

However, it strikes me as extremely uncharitable to assume that that’s all there is to it given what else we know about men and sex: they’re expected to want it all the time, and they face severe social consequences for refusing sex or having a low sex drive.

In that context, having a partner with a high sex drive would be terrifying because they feel like they can’t say no to sex they don’t want.

That’s not to say that men who face this issue haven’t subscribed to a bunch of sexist myths–they have, it’s just that the myths are hurting them, too. These men may have expected their female partners to be mostly disinterested in sex because Everyone Knows Women Don’t Actually Like Sex, and because of that belief they never expected to have to set any boundaries around sex–and therefore never learned how.

Some otherwise-progressive people are dismissive of this issue because they think that women and trans people are the only people who have any valid difficulty with boundaries, and that if a man can’t tell a woman “no” when she wants to have sex, that’s his own problem.

I disagree in two ways. First of all, even if men don’t actually face any tangible consequences for turning down sex, the point is that many of them feel that they do and that’s what makes the issue valid. Second, plenty of men have told me that they have actually experienced shaming from other men and from women as a result of being insufficiently interested in sex. Until we make such shaming completely unacceptable, some men are naturally going to have difficulty setting boundaries around sex.

When you feel like you have no way out of a shitty situation, it makes sense that you would start to blame the other person. So for men who:

1) are dealing with an imbalance in sexual interest in their relationship–an imbalance that leaves them wanting less than their partners do;

2) feel that they have no right to say no, or that they can’t say no without being shamed; and

3) don’t have the language to conceptualize this problem as a problem of sexist gender roles, it makes sense to blame their female partners and pathologize their higher sex drive.

If their partner is the one with the problem–namely, that her sex drive is inappropriately high–then there is no problem with themselves, and no problem with “The Relationship” (when defined as an entity separate from the people in it, which isn’t how I view it at all but is how many people view it). Then there is no need to ask the difficult questions about whether or not consent is really happening, and whether or not your partner actually accepts you and your sexuality, and whether or not anything needs to change other than your partner’s inappropriately high sex drive.

There is certainly no need to think about unpleasant stuff like gender roles and feminism.

While it probably really sucks to be in a relationship where you feel like your partner wants way too much sex and you can’t really say no but you don’t want to leave them because you otherwise like them, maybe that’s not quite as scary as contemplating the idea that the entire way we traditionally conceptualize gender and sexuality is just totally wrong, and not quite as scary as setting your boundaries for the first time and facing the probable shaming and criticism that you’ll get for it. (Unfortunately, that’s a common reaction when anyone of any gender sets boundaries, and it will continue until you painstakingly extricate from your life everyone who is unwilling to respect your boundaries. And no, “Fine, we won’t have sex, but I’ll ridicule you for telling me ‘no’” doesn’t count as respecting boundaries.)

This is why people of all genders need feminism–or substitute another, made-up word that means “challenging gendered stereotypes, establishing physical and emotional autonomy for everyone, and ending gender-based oppression” if you don’t like the one I use–even if not all feminists themselves understand this. Many women can’t or don’t want to acknowledge that men also experience sex-related boundary violations, perhaps because they think that acknowledging that means denying that women and trans people experience oppressions that cis men don’t. They do.

But nobody is entirely free from compulsory sexuality in our culture. Women and feminine people are expected to have sex to please their partners; men and masculine people are expected to have sex because they’re supposed to have an insatiable appetite for it. Boundaries, autonomy, and asexuality get erased no matter what someone’s gender is.

The Mic article concludes, “[The researcher] hopes this study will inspire some men to reconsider ending a relationship in the early stages — especially if their girlfriends simply want to have sex more often than they do, because that’s just plain dumb.”

I hope that these men are able to have frank and open conversations with their partners about sex, boundaries, and differences in desire. But if their partners are unable to respect their boundaries, then ending the relationship might be exactly what’s needed.


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Why Would Men Fear Women With High Sex Drives?
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Why ‘Can I _____ and Still Be a Feminist?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask

Here’s a new Everyday Feminism piece that I’m particularly excited to share, as I’ve been thinking about this topic for ages.

“Can I be a feminist and still wear makeup?”

“I’m a feminist, but I still shave my legs.”

Changing your last name to your husband’s is anti-feminist!”

If you’ve talked about feminism with other feminists, you’ve probably heard statements like these – and maybe even made them yourself.

For many new feminists, analyzing and critiquing individual practices like these is an important first step towards understanding how sexism works in our world.

It’s important to notice how gendered expectations impact and harm all of us, and it’s perfectly normal to wonder how much of what you love to do – whether it’s cooking or wearing feminine clothes or taking care of children – was actually shaped by the sexist messages you’ve been taught since birth.

But focusing on questions like “Can I wear makeup and still be a feminist?” can prevent us from moving our analysis forward and understanding the fact that sexism isn’t just about what individual people choose to do or not to.

It’s also about how institutionalized oppression impacts which choices are available and encouraged for different types of people.

Here are three reasons why “Can I _____ and still be a feminist?” is the wrong question to be asking – and how we can get past it.

1. It Often Fails at Intersectionality

Is it “feminist” for a woman to wear dresses, high heels, and makeup? Some feminists would say no, because she’s “conforming” to traditional standards of femininity or “playing to the male gaze.”

But what if she uses a wheelchair? What if she’s fat? Disabled women, fat women, and many other women and non-binary people who experience additional forms of oppression have traditionally been denied access to femininity. These people are often desexualized and expected to hide their bodies with baggy or utilitarian clothing.

There’s no male gaze for them to “play into” because it’s widely assumed that no man would ever want to gaze at them.

For someone like that, dressing in an unabashedly feminine way can be a way to make themselves and their bodies visible, to demand attention in a world that prefers to avert eyes.

How about getting married to a man and changing your last name to his? Definitely anti-feminist, right? Maybe from the perspective of a white middle-class woman.

Read the rest here.

Why ‘Can I _____ and Still Be a Feminist?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask

Against One Penis Policies

Let’s talk about one penis policies, which is when a nonmonogamous couple–generally a straight man and a queer woman–create a rule stating that the woman can only have sex with other women. (In a less extreme but probably harder-to-enforce version, the woman can have casual sex with other men, but she can only fall in love with or form committed relationships with women.)

One penis policies are generally justified using some combination of these rhetorical moves:

  • “Well it works for us so you can’t judge it”
  • “It’s equal because both of us are only seeing women”
  • “I [the man] can’t emotionally handle her fucking another man so isn’t this better than just being monogamous”
  • “I [the man] wanted to give her the opportunity to explore her interest in other women; she doesn’t need another man”
  • “I [the woman] am not interested in any other men anyway so what’s the problem”

I’m going to suggest another justification for one penis policies, one that tends to underlie the rest. This one usually remains invisible because nobody wants to say it out loud and sometimes they don’t even realize it’s what they believe:

Girls don’t count.

Continue reading “Against One Penis Policies”

Against One Penis Policies

How to Make Hookup Culture More Empowering

I’m catching up on pieces I’ve written for Everyday Feminism but forgotten to post here! So here’s one about how hookup culture can be super sexist, and how to make it better.

When I was in college, I held a belief I’m a little ashamed of now: that casual hookups are intrinsically disempowering and demeaning for women.

It was a sentiment echoed by many conservative commentators whose books and articles I eagerly read, feeling that they affirmed my own feelings and experiences.

Looking back on it, though, I can understand why I believed that: I thought that casual sex was degrading because I had felt degraded every time I had it.

But as I later realized, the reason I felt degraded wasn’t because casual sex is inherently degrading. It was because my hookup partners had treated me like an object, like a means to an end. They didn’t care about my pleasure, they disrespected and ignored me afterwards, and they were often pushy and coercive.

The more I learned about feminism, the more I realized that my experiences with casual sex with men fit into a much broader pattern of structural sexism. They treated me that way because that’s how they’d learned to treat women (often not just in hookup situations, either), and the reason they’d learned to treat women that way was because they, like all of us, were raised in a sexist society.

Unfortunately, while there are real and important critiques to be made of the way that hookup culture tends to function, many of the critiques we hear most often are coming from a place of sex negativity and a fear of young people’s sexuality.

Through their coded language and their failure to look at hookup culture through a feminist lens, these critics reveal the fact that, ultimately, they think that people (especially young people, and especially young women) having casual sex is just kind of immoral and icky.

Well, it’s not. The problems we see in hookup culture aren’t there because it involves casual sex, but because it involves sexism – and sexism is deeply embedded in our society.

Of course hookup culture is sexist. It’s sexist for the same reason that serious relationships are sexist, and TV shows are sexist, and workplaces are sexist.

In order to completely remove sexism from hookup culture, we’d have to completely remove it from society, and that’s a tall order – for now. There are still things we can do to make our hookups less sexist and more empowering.

Before I get started, though, I just want to note that I’ll primarily be examining heterosexual dynamics here because that’s what criticisms of “hookup culture” have primarily focused on. But some parts of this article will also apply to queer hookups.

Let’s look at five ways sexism plays out in hookup culture and how we can address it:

1. There’s a Lack of Focus on Women’s Pleasure

In many heterosexual hookup situations, the focus is on the man having an orgasm, and when he does, the hookup is over.

One study of college students found that 80% of men had orgasms during their hookups, but only 40% of women did. By comparison, 75% of women in relationships had orgasms during sex.

That’s quite a substantial gap, but it doesn’t mean we all have to commit to serious relationships in order to get the pleasure we want.

The researchers of that study pointed out that women may not feel comfortable asking for what they want in a hookup situation because they don’t know the person well. But being upfront about your sexual desires is always okay, whether you’ve known the person for years or minutes.

If you still feel awkward talking about sex, these tips may help.

However, when it comes to sex, it takes (at least) two to tango. Even when women ask for what they want, their male hookups may not always care enough to make the effort. One young man quoted in the New York Times article about this study said, “I’m not going to try as hard as when I’m with someone I really care about.”

Men (and everyone): if you don’t care enough to give your partner a good time, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex with other people.

And if your partner doesn’t care enough about you to bother asking you what you’re into or making sure that you’re enjoying yourself, it might be time to find another hookup. Casual doesn’t have to mean careless or boring.

2. Men Are Expected to Conform to Unrealistic and Toxic Standards

What do I mean by unrealistic and toxic standards? Let’s start with the fact that men, straightand queer, are expected to want tons of casual sex all the time.

Men who are asexual, have low sex drives, prefer sex in committed relationships, or feel too shy to initiate sexual encounters are seen as less “manly” and often find themselves ridiculed by other men (and sometimes by women, too).

Men are also expected to “perform” sexually in ways that aren’t always possible (or preferable).

If cis women’s orgasms are supposed to be “complicated” and difficult to achieve, cis men are expected to be “easy to please” and to have orgasms readily during a casual hookup. At the same time, they’re not supposed to orgasm too quickly, or else they’re viewed as inexperienced and not in control. They’re not supposed to be sexually submissive or unsure of what they want.

If you hook up with men, remember that their needs and desires are as diverse as those of folks of other genders.

Some men may not be interested in casual sex (or any sex at all), and that doesn’t make them any less male. Some may have a difficult time reaching orgasm and may need a particular type of play or stimulation in order to get there.

When you meet a guy who breaks your expectations of what men are “supposed” to be like in hookup situations, treat him with kindness and an earnest curiosity, not ridicule. And if it turns out that you’re not sexually compatible with him, say so honestly and directly, without putting him down in a gendered way.

Read the rest here.

How to Make Hookup Culture More Empowering

"That's not true, but even if it were…"

So many debunking-type conversations that we have go like this:

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!” “Actually, children of same-sex couples aren’t any more likely to be gay.”
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.” “Actually, many people take birth control for medical reasons.”
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!” “Actually, many feminists have male partners and happy relationships.”
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.” “Actually, polyamory is about love, not sex; many poly people have lifelong partners and raise children with them.”
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.” “Actually, most people with mental illnesses have jobs, friends, and relationships just like everyone else.”
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.” “Actually, most gay men are Just Like Us; all they want is to marry their soulmate and raise children together.”
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.” “Actually, for many women, abortion is a difficult and painful decision.”
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Actually, gay people never chose to be gay.”

These are defensive narratives. They’re defensive because they accept the opposition’s terms and assumptions and then respond as though those terms and assumptions are acceptable, even preferable.

It’s not always obvious what you’re accepting when you take these statements at face value. So let’s unpack them.

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!”: Raising gay children, and being gay, is a bad thing. The idea that same-sex parents might raise gay children is therefore a counterargument against letting them adopt.
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.”: It’s bad for women to have sex, and women who cannot afford birth control shouldn’t have sex.
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!”: Being unattractive by conventional standards and being unable to find a man to date is a bad way for a woman to be and it means I don’t have to take her opinions seriously.
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.”: If someone’s sexual identity stems from negative experiences that they’ve had, then that identity is invalid.
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.”: Wanting to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything is wrong.
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.”: Being unable to act like “normal people” is a bad thing and worthy of shame and stigma.
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.”: Being “deviant” and “promiscuous” is bad.
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.”: It’s wrong to treat abortion like any other medical procedure; it’s only acceptable if the person getting the abortion suffers emotionally because of it.
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” That one’s pretty obvious.

How do you know that you’re taking a defensive stance and accepting your opposition’s faulty assumptions? If you find yourself trying to claim that a stigmatized group is “just like everyone else,” or that your group or idea is really totally nonthreatening to the status quo, you may be agreeing with more of your opposition’s premises than you mean to.

Children raised by same-sex couples aren’t more likely than children of different-sex couples (or single parents) to be lesbian, gay, or bi. But so what if they were? Why is that a bad thing? How would that justify denying rights to same-sex couples?

Women with feminist views don’t generally come to those views by being “ugly” and rejected by men (if anything, some of us have had a little too much attention from men). But so what if they did? The ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, can they not?

Many or most lesbians have probably been lesbians for their whole lives, and didn’t have any particular experiences that “caused” them to be lesbians. But some did. Some women find that their patterns of attraction change after traumatic experiences with men. Aren’t their identities just as valid?

Most people with mental illnesses do have jobs and families and can generally “pass” as neurotypical. What about the ones who can’t? Don’t they deserve support rather than shame and stigma? Shouldn’t we fund programs that will provide much-needed services to these people, not just to the ones who “pass”?

Most LGBTQ people do not experience their identity as a choice that they got to make. But so what if they did? What’s the problem with choosing to be gay, supposing that’s even possible?

Progressive advocates don’t concede these points maliciously. Often, they understand what’s being left unsaid and disagree with it, but they believe that we need to go “one step at a time” or else we’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe that’s true. I don’t actually know. That’s an empirical question, but it’s very difficult to answer because studying attitude shifts is a process laden with variables that can’t be controlled. I obviously understand the reasoning–you can’t teach a child algebra until you teach them how to count–that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reasoning applies.

For instance, it’s also possible that this approach actually increases the length of time it takes to achieve equality or justice. When we accept the opponent’s faulty premise, we waste time that we could’ve spent challenging that premise. So we hear “Gay people are sinful deviants” and respond that actually gay people just want to get married and raise cute babies, why won’t you give them that chance? And the premise we accept is that being gay is only okay as long as you can look as much like a typical straight person as possible, and we choose our battles accordingly. If rather than battling homophobia, we battle the fact that two people of the same gender cannot get married, and next we battle the fact that in many states same-sex couples can’t adopt children, and so on, then when will we actually defeat homophobia?

Moreover, as plenty of people have pointed out plenty of times, this approach often ignores the most marginalized in a given group. If we’re always choosing the easiest, most press-friendly battle, then when are we going to address the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at really high rates? When do we address violence and discrimination against homeless queer youth, including the ones who do sex work and the ones who use or sell drugs?

I’m kinda wondering if the answer is “never.”

Accepting the opponent’s premise is not a neutral action; it causes actual harm to actual people. It marginalizes everyone whose narrative doesn’t fit into the tidy paths we’ve laid: the lesbian whose sexual trauma influenced her developing identity; the gay man who does want to have lots of random casual sex rather than finding a husband and raising children; the person who accidentally gets pregnant and immediately gets an abortion and feels nothing but relief; all the people who do want birth control specifically because they love sex and don’t want children. Which, by the way, is totally okay. That’s why birth control exists.

I won’t pretend to know what the way forward is, but I think we do have a responsibility to at least try to challenge faulty premises. It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.

~~~

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"That's not true, but even if it were…"

"The Good Ones Say No": Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.
~~~

*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

"The Good Ones Say No": Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Why Subtle Sexism in Tech Matters

[Content note: sexual harassment, bullying]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about tech sexism.

When we think of a “hostile workplace environment,” we often think of the blatant, obvious things—like inappropriate touching, overtly sexual comments, and the implication that the boss needs “a favor” before you can get a promotion.

But for women in tech—an industry that has been making the news lately for its poor representation of women, many of whom are leaving Silicon Valley in droves—it’s the more subtle things that push them out.

For instance, Tracy Chou, now an engineer at Pinterest, says of a previous experience: “The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism.”

Women of color particularly face the “double jeopardy” of raceand gender. For instance, almost half of black and Latina women working as scientists report being mistaken for janitorsin their workplace. Such comments send a subtle message that they don’t belong in the lab or the office.

It’s easy for those who are not targeted by such comments and behaviors to dismiss them as “not such a big deal” and to tell women to “grow a thicker skin”—or, of course, to deny that they happen at all. However, that betrays a lack of understanding of social psychology.

Here’s an analogy that may be familiar to many men working in the tech sector: school bullying. While some bullies use overt physical violence against their targets, many do not. It’s the mean note passed to you in class. It’s the way people roll their eyes or turn away or whisper exaggeratedly as you pass in the halls. It’s the backhanded compliments: ”Nice shirt. Did you get it at Goodwill?” “Wow, you actually managed to get a date to Homecoming!” It’s the comments and pranks that are just a little too cruel to be a joke between friends.

When children who are being bullied try to tell teachers or other adults, these authority figures often either deny outright that there is a problem or assume that unless physical violence is happening, that there’s no real danger. (Even then, many adults are reluctant to get involved.) Confronting bullies, of course, is useless. They often gaslight their victims: “We were just joking around!” “What’s the problem? I was trying to give you a compliment!” “Of course, we want you to hang out with us!”

I see similar dynamics going on in tech and other STEM fields. Women give examples of how their male coworkers create a hostile work environment, but those with the power to change things deny or ignore the problem. Meanwhile, women know what they’re experiencing, and their bullies know exactly what they’re doing.

Read the rest here.

Why Subtle Sexism in Tech Matters

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

How to Get Away with Rape

[Content note: rape & sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about excuses people make when accused of rape.

In 2013, two then-students at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, allegedly raped an unconscious female student on campus. They used a cell phone to capture footage, which also shows Batey urinating on the victim and using racial slurs.

Unlike most accused rapists, Vandenburg and Batey are now on trial. As the trial opened this past week, the defense team made some interesting comments about Batey’s culpability.

Batey’s attorney said the football player from Nashville was influenced by a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.

The atmosphere “changed the rest of his life,” and Batey was too drunk at the time to deliberately commit a crime, he added.

The reasoning seems to be that Batey has been somehow wronged by this university and its campus environment in a way that is relevant to the matter of his innocence or lack thereof. (The question of whether or not being drunk should influence culpability is a separate one that I will leave to a separate article.)

This seems like a convenient way of obfuscating the issue. Of course Batey was influenced in all sorts of ways by his environment. We all are. That’s the nature of being a social species. But ultimately the burden of making the decision falls on the individual making it, and part of being an adult is accepting that responsibility.

This got me thinking about other bad and illogical excuses people make when accused of rape.

1) “I’m the real victim here.”

Usually this means “victim of a false rape accusation,” but clearly Cory Batey and his lawyers didn’t have that option–there was video evidence. Instead, Batey is the victim of “a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.” The implication seems to be that none of this would ever have happened if Batey had not found himself (well, chose to place himself) in such a campus environment.

I’ll be the first to endorse the claim that many college campuses have unhealthy cultures, and this can impact people in all sorts of ways. (Not necessarily negative ways—some people respond to these environments by becoming passionate activists for a better culture.)

Short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone.

However, short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone—or to urinate on them, for that matter. Batey’s peers and environment may have suggested to him that this sort of behavior is OK, but it is not too much to expect an adult to be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to rape someone, especially if that adult’s upbringing contrasted so greatly with this campus culture.

That said, buried deep within the obfuscation and rationalization that Batey’s lawyers are presenting here is actually a nugget of truth that anti-rape activists have been repeating for years: Many campuses have a really unhealthy and dangerous climate when it comes to things like binge drinking and sexual assault. Acknowledging this and working to change it, however, does not mean excusing those who commit rape.

2) “She was asking for it.”

This is, of course, entirely self-contradictory. If someone was actually asking for you to have sex with them, then it was not rape. If someone was not asking (or consenting) to have sex with you, then it was rape. If someone makes a rape accusation, then that means they were not asking. The only way to actually “ask” to have sex is to, well, ask for it—not to drink alcohol, not to dress sexy, not to dance or flirt with you, and not to make out with you.

We hear this excuse a lot with sexual harassment, too, not just assault. The reason I used a female pronoun is because this is typically only applied to female survivors. Why? Probably because (white, conventionally attractive) women are presumed to be so irresistibly appealing that men cannot possibly restrain themselves—therefore, those women were “asking” for whatever it is the men did.

But we didn’t ask for you to have such poor self-control that you cannot keep yourself from catcalling or raping us. And, more to the point, rape is typically a premeditated act. It has nothing to do with irresistible urges.

Read the rest here.

How to Get Away with Rape

The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."
Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”

 

What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

The Context of the Thing