On Trying New Things… And Re-Trying Old Ones

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Naked sushi
I was eating sushi the other day… yes, I promise, this is about sex.

I was eating sushi the other day, and it sparked a mini-revelation about trying new things — and about re-trying old things I think I don’t like. And it’s occurring to me that this mini-revelation could apply to lots of things other than food. Like — oh, say, just to pick one example completely at random — sex.

I’ve been trying of late to expand my horizons about food. I’m a mildly picky eater, and I really don’t want to be. There’s a huge world of food out there that millions of people take tremendous pleasure in, and I don’t want to be closed off to it. (You can start drawing parallels with sex anytime.) And if other people are enjoying some culinary delicacy, then… well, that’s certainly no guarantee that I’m going to like it. But it’s a pretty good guarantee that I’m not actually going to die from it.

So I’m trying to expand my horizons. Which means trying new things, obviously. But it also means re-trying things I’ve tried before, and decided I didn’t like.

And I had a mini-revelation about a specific strategy for doing that… a strategy that I think can be applied to sex as well.

So back to the sushi. I was eating sushi the other day; my dining companion wanted to order a sushi variety with salty plum paste (ume, I believe it’s called); and he asked me, “Is it okay if we order that? Do you like it?”

My immediate instinct was to say, “No.” I’d tried salty plum paste; I hadn’t liked it one bit. But then it occurred to me: I hadn’t actually tried the stuff in years. And my tastes have changed since the last time I’d tried it. More specifically, my tastes have broadened since the last time I’d tried it. I like stronger flavors, and stranger flavors, and a wider variety of flavors, than I did when I was younger. (Again…you can start drawing parallels with sex anytime.)

So instead of saying, “No, I don’t like that,” I said, “I don’t know if I like it or not. Let’s try it.”

I mean — what was the worst that could happen? I wouldn’t like it; my dining companion would eat all the salty plum paste sushi; I’d eat the other sushi. Big freaking deal. Little to be ventured; potentially a new pleasure to be gained.

None of this is the revelation, by the way. This is all just preface. The revelation is this:

On first taste, I didn’t like the salty plum paste. It was really strong, and somewhat bitter, and salty as hell (obviously), and just… weird. Like nothing I’d ever tasted before. Which my lizard hindbrain was interpreting as, “Bad, bad, bad!”

But instead of just choking it down and refusing any more (and glaring at my dining companion for foisting this vile stuff on me), I thought, “Let me just sit with this for a moment.”

My lizard hindbrain was telling me that this was new and weird, and therefore probably poisonous or rancid and I should spit it out immediately. But I knew that my lizard hindbrain was almost certainly wrong. The chances that this stuff was actually poisonous or rancid were minimal. My dining companion was munching away on it happily. Clearly, this was what the stuff was supposed to taste like.

So I just sat with it. Let myself experience it. Let myself engage with it, and explore it. Let my tongue get familiar with it. Let myself think, “This tastes kind of nasty” — without immediately following that up with a reaction of, “I must therefore immediately push it as far away from me as I possibly can, and never eat it again as long as I live.”

And I found, after sitting with it for a few moments, that I rather liked it.

I don’t think I’ll be running out and buying a jar of the stuff and spreading it on everything I eat. But I rather liked it. It had a sharpness that woke up my tastebuds, like fiery whiskey or hot pepper. Once I got past the strong, salty bitterness, it had a richness and complexity that was very satisfying. And once I got past the “This tastes weird and therefore might kill me” lizard hindbrain response, the strangeness itself became a pleasure: a way of waking up my tastebuds all on its own. I won’t be eating the stuff at every meal… but I’ll be happy now to include it in my repertoire of occasional pleasures.

And I’m really glad that I decided to just sit with the flavor, instead of letting my first visceral “Ew!” reaction be my final one.

And that’s the revelation. That’s the philosophy I think I’ll be applying to sex.

I’ve written before about trying things twice: about how first times with a new kind of sex often don’t work, and if we want to keep ourselves experimenting and open to new pleasures, we need to be willing to try them, not just once, but at least twice. I’ve written about how there’s often an awkwardness with new kinds of sex, a learning curve; how we often try new things when we’re younger and not as informed about sex or as skilled at communicating about it; how our high expectations of sex can make any disappointment with it feel devastating and not worth risking again; how our shame and negativity about sex can lead us to reject experiments as failures far too quickly. And I’ve written about how important it is to get past these reactions — or to just be willing to sit with them and let them be without immediately basing final decisions on them — if we want to keep our sex lives from falling into a rut.

But I think this mini-revelation adds a new dimension to this idea. If my initial reaction to a new kind of sex is, “Hm, no, I don’t think I like this” — but it’s not actively excruciating or nauseating or traumatic, it just seems at first to be not exactly my thing — then maybe I need to sit with it for a few moments, before making up my mind. Maybe the “This isn’t my thing” reaction is just a reflexive rejection of the newness itself; just my lizard hindbrain, reacting with fear to the unfamiliar. Maybe I need to let myself engage with the new experience, explore it, let my tongue get familiar with it… without immediately pushing it away, and deciding that I never want to try that again.


(P.S. to regular readers: No, I’m not going to apply this philosophy to broccoli. That stuff is pure fermented essence of evil. Don’t even ask.)

On Trying New Things… And Re-Trying Old Ones

What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Atheists often point out that religious faith is closed off to evidence that contradicts it. What evidence would persuade atheists that their atheism was mistaken?

If I’m such an open-minded atheist — if I really am an atheist because I think the God hypothesis is unsupported by the evidence — what evidence for God would I accept? What would it take to change my mind?

Atheists often ask religious believers, “What evidence would convince you that you were mistaken?” We like to point out that religious beliefs are usually unfalsifiable — there’s no possible evidence that could prove them wrong, thus rendering them utterly useless. And even if they’re falsifiable in theory (as any belief in a 6,000 year old Earth ought to be), they wind up being unfalsifiable in practice, with an endless series of denialism and goalpost-moving and “God works in mysterious ways” waffling. We often point out that the very definition of religious faith is believing without evidence, even believing in spite of evidence that flatly contradicts the faith. We point out that, when asked “What would convince you that your belief was mistaken?”, the answer from believers is typically, “Nothing. Nothing would convince me that my God is not real. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Which makes accusing atheists of arrogance more than a little absurd… but that’s not important right now.)

And atheists like to point out that this isn’t true for us. We like to point out that atheists are open to the possibility that we might be wrong. We like to point out that the reason we don’t believe in God is that we haven’t seen good evidence for him… and that if we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.

But I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy about spelling out what that evidence actually is. When the subject comes up, I’ve tended to point to the legendary (in atheist circles, anyway) essay on this subject, The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, by Daylight Atheism blogger Ebonmuse. I’ve tended to just point to that piece, and say, “What he said. That’s more or less what I think.”

But that seems like cheating. If I’m going to insist that my atheism is falsifiable, I bloody well ought to be willing to think carefully about what, exactly, would falsify it. Not for some other really smart atheist — for me. And I ought to be willing to spell that out in public.

So it’s time to go out on a limb. It’s time to put up or shut up.

Here are the pieces of evidence that would convince me that God was real. Not necessarily that God was good, or worth worshipping — simply that he/ she/ it/they existed.

And here, side by side with that, are some of the kinds of evidence that would not convince me God or the supernatural exist. Kinds of evidence that are typically offered by believers in debates with atheists, so often it’s depressingly predictable. Kinds of evidence that flatly do not hold up. (All inspired, obviously, by the abovementioned Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists. From which I am stealing this whole idea outright.)

An Unambiguous Message

What would convince me: If I saw an unambiguous message from God, I would be persuaded of his existence. If I saw writing suddenly appear in the sky, in letters a hundred feet high, saying “I Am God, I Exist, Here Is What I Want You To Do” — and if that writing were seen by every human being, written in whatever language they understand, comprehended in the same way by everyone who saw it — I would be persuaded that God existed. I’d be puzzled as to why he’d waited this long — why he’d decided to do it in 2010 and not at any other time in human history — but I’d still believe.

(And for the record: Yes, it’s possible that this could happen without God. It could hypothetically, for instance, be accomplished by a highly technologically advanced alien species. But I don’t think that would be the simplest explanation. If this phenomenon happened, “God” would, in my opinion, be a simpler explanation than “aliens” — and unless I saw good evidence that the writing was done by aliens, God would be the provisional conclusion I would come to.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by ambiguous messages. I would not be persuaded by religious texts or teachings that contradict themselves, and that are easily interpreted in wildly different and even completely contradictory ways by different believers in that faith. Like, oh, say, every religious text I’ve ever read.

I would also not be persuaded by people saying, “The evidence is all around you! Look at the magnificence of life and the universe! It had to be created and shaped by something, because… well, it had to be! Isn’t it obvious?” Human minds are wired by evolution to see intention, even where no intention exists. Given this cognitive error; given that so much about life and the universe has already been explained by physical cause and effect; given the thorough consistency with which natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones, thousands upon thousands of times over the course of history, when it has never once happened the other way around… given all this, I see no reason to interpret the existence of the physical universe as an unambiguous message from God.

Similarly, I would not be persuaded by the “first cause” argument, the argument from design, or the argument from fine tuning. Same reasons, basically.

And I would not be persuaded by a message that only I saw or heard. (At least… I hope I wouldn’t be. It’s possible that I could get hit by lightning or something and get my brain re-arranged in a way that made me think God existed. But I would be wrong to do so. If I ever get hit by lightning and decide that God exists, you all have my permission to print out this article and smack me over the head with it.)

“I feel it in my heart” is one of the worst pieces of evidence for God that I’ve seen. Our personal intuitions are important and valuable — but they’re far too flawed, far too subject to confirmation bias and other cognitive errors, to be the sole piece of evidence for anything in the external, non-subjective world. Especially when it comes to things that we really, really want to believe — like God and Heaven and immortality. If we care whether the things we believe about the world are true, we need to test our personal experiences and intuitions, using rigorous methods designed to filter these cognitive biases out.

Accurate Prophecies in Sacred Texts

What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion made clear, unambiguous, accurate prophecies about the future — and did so consistently — I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired. If there were a passage in Isaiah or Revelation, the Pyramid Texts or the Bhagavad Gita, that read, “And verily I say unto you, that 1,987 years after the death of Augustus Caesar, on the date of September 11, some followers of an Abrahamic religion that has not yet been founded will attack a city called New York that does not yet exist, by steering flying machines that have not yet been invented into two skyscrapers, whatever the hell those are” — and if that same sacred text made several other clear, accurate prophecies — I’d be convinced that God or some other divine being existed, and had inspired the text in question. (With the same “highly technologically advanced aliens” caveat noted above.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by vague prophecies that could easily be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, and that can be twisted and shoehorned in after an event to make it seem like that event is what was being predicted. (Like, oh, say, to pick one example completely at random, Nostradamus.)

I would also not be persuaded by one lucky hit among numerous misses. If I saw the abovementioned 9/11 prophecy in a sacred text — but this same sacred text also prophesized that the flying machines would be invented in the year 1066, and that in 1501 all people would sprout green tentacles for three months, and that within a hundred years of the tentacle incident the continent of Antarctica would be swallowed by hamsters… I’d be surprised, I’d stop and take notice, but ultimately I wouldn’t be convinced.

I would definitely not be persuaded by very broad, obvious predictions. “The current empire will someday fall”… well, yes. Empires rise and fall. “There will be a great drought”… well, yes. Droughts happen. You don’t need God to tell you that. Any nimrod can figure that out. Self-fulfilling prophecies would also not convince me. As Ebonmuse pointed out in the Theist’s Guide: “The Jewish people returned to their homeland in Israel just as the Bible said they would, but this isn’t a genuine prediction — they did it because the Bible said they would. The predicted event can’t be one that people could stage.”

And I would not be persuaded by religious texts that were written after a prophecy had been made, conveniently making it seem as if the previous prophecy had been magically fulfilled. When the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would have such-and-such characteristics, and the authors of the New Testament knew that the Old Testament had made these predictions, and they wrote the story of Jesus after the fact in a way that shoehorned him into those predictions… that’s a teensy bit unconvincing. To say the least.

Accurate Science in Religious Texts

What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion were consistently accurate in its writings about science — including scientific knowledge that was not known at the time the text was written — I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired. If there were a passage in Isaiah or Revelation, the Pyramid Texts or the Bhagavad Gita, that read, “And verily I say unto you, that the earth orbits the sun despite how it appears to the naked eye, and the sun is simply another of the millions upon millions of stars that appear in the sky, and the continents slowly drift through the oceans, and energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared”… I’d be convinced that God or some other divine being existed, and had inspired the text in question. (Again, with the same “space aliens” caveat noted above.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by vaguely worded passages that could be twisted after the fact to fit into current scientific knowledge. The fact that the Bible starts with the words “In the beginning” does not mean it’s accurately describing the Big Bang. Please. Absolutely nothing in Genesis implies anything about the Big Bang… and plenty of stuff in Genesis completely contradicts it. Such as the bit about the Earth being created before the stars. Give me a break.

And again, I would not be persuaded by one lucky hit among eleventy kajillion misses. If a sacred text got it right about the earth orbiting the sun, but got it laughably wrong about botany and zoology and epidemiology and geology and genetics and physics… I would remain, to say the least, unimpressed.

The One Successful Religion

Jump for joy
What would convince me: If the believers in one particular religion had noticeably better lives than the believers in any other religion — in ways that couldn’t be accounted for by social or economic or other natural factors — I would be convinced that this religion was true. If believers in, say, the Mormon faith, or the Baha’i faith, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, were found to be far healthier, wealthier, and happier than believers in other faiths, if their prayers came true significantly more often, if they had far fewer accidents and birth defects and genetic diseases and pediatric cancer — and this difference was statistically significant, much greater than could be accounted for by higher wealth or social status or something — I would be persuaded that God existed, and that this faith was the correct one, and that God was rewarding these believers for the correctness of their faith.

And if one religion consistently won all its holy wars with all other religions — again, in ways that couldn’t be explained by better military technology or a larger population or other social/ economic/ natural factors — that would get me believing in a heartbeat.

I might not be persuaded to worship this God, or to believe that he was good. I’d be more than a little baffled as to why he hadn’t made his message of Mormonism or Baha’i-ism or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synodism clearer to everyone. I’d actually think he was kind of a dick. But I’d sure be persuaded that he existed.

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by one religion doing better than another for obvious social or economic or other natural reasons. Yes, Episcopalians tend to be wealthier than, say, Baptists. There are lots of obvious, entirely natural explanations for this. None of them have to do with Episcopalians being God’s chosen people.

And I would definitely not be persuaded by believers parading all the times that their prayers came true… and then, when all the times that their prayers weren’t answered got pointed out, responding with something like, “God moves in mysterious ways,” or, “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is No.” Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You don’t get to count the hits and ignore or rationalize the misses. That’s what we call confirmation bias. And it’s definitely cheating.

Inexplicably Accurate Information Gained During Near-Death or Other Supposedly Psychic Experiences

What would convince me: This is a slightly different category — it’s more about evidence for an immaterial soul than evidence for God — but I’m going to bring it up anyway. If a person who was near death, or who was having some other sort of supposed psychic experience, were to gather information that could not possibly have been gathered in any physical way — and this was rigorously tested under careful conditions designed to screen out confirmation bias and cold readings and the unconscious sending of messages and other cognitive or experimental errors (not to mention outright fraud), and the experience could be consistently replicated under similarly rigorous testing conditions — I would be persuaded that human consciousness was not simply a product of the human brain, and that it had a non-physical component that could hypothetically survive death. If someone near death or in a trance or whatever could reliably, testably report on the contents of a locked safe… that would persuade me of the existence of the soul.

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by anecdotal reports of these experiences. Casual observers are too — is there a nice word for “gullible”? I suppose there isn’t — too unfamiliar with natural explanations for supposedly supernatural events, too unaware of the kinds of experimental errors that can make these experiences seem real, too subject to confirmation bias, too incomplete in their understanding of probability, and far, far too eager to believe that the soul is real and they aren’t going to die. So these experiences would need to be rigorously tested and replicated, by people with experience in the kinds of cognitive and experimental errors that supposed psychic experiences are consistently subject to. (The reality is that whenever these types of experiences have been subjected to careful testing under good, scientific conditions, they never, ever, ever pan out. Ever.)

And I would definitely not be persuaded by the mere fact that some people have strange experiences when they’re near death. Being near death is an altered state of consciousness, and people have weird experiences when our brains are altered. We have weird experiences under all sorts of conditions: exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from external reality. You don’t have to be mentally ill, or even on drugs, to have weird experiences of things that aren’t there. And the oxygen deprivation and other physical changes that happen to the brain when it’s near death are definitely enough to do the trick. This one isn’t even close to being convincing. It makes absolutely no sense at all.

Is The Bar Too High?

High jump
Now, some believers will probably argue that my standards set the bar too high. They’ll argue that I’ve created standards of evidence that are obviously not being met: that I’ve created a counter-factual world in which God might exist, but that clearly is not the world we live in.

To which I reply: Yes. That’s my whole freaking point. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that there is not one scrap of good, solid evidence supporting the God hypothesis. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that every piece of evidence anyone has ever shown me in support of the God hypothesis has completely sucked. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that these criteria — criteria that would be completely reasonable for any other hypothesis — are not being met.

As many atheists point out: If God were real, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If God were real, it would be freaking obvious. If God were real, nobody would be an atheist. Nobody would even disagree about religion. The most obvious explanation for God’s existence not being ridiculously self-evident is that God does not exist. As Julia Sweeney says in her brilliant performance piece Letting Go of God, “The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”

And it’s absurd to argue that this bar is too high. If God were real — if there really were a God who created the universe and/or intervenes with it magically — none of this would be beyond him. I mean — he created the entire, 93- billion- light- years- across universe out of nothing! Surely he could make hundred-foot-high letters appear in the sky, or create a sacred text with scientific and prophetic accuracy, or consistently answer the prayers of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod! To argue that any bar is too high for him, that any standard of evidence is too rigorous for him, is ridiculous on the face of it.

Besides, just because God hasn’t offered these pieces of evidence so far doesn’t mean he never will. Maybe he’ll decide that he tried sending his message with the flood, and he tried again with Jesus… but obviously none of that worked, humans can be kind of thick-headed sometimes. So hey, why not try that “hundred-foot letters in the sky” thing this atheist chick keeps gassing on about?

If he does, I’ll change my mind.

In the meantime, I remain unconvinced.

Take The Challenge

So I’ve gone out on my limb. What about you?

If you’re an atheist — what evidence would convince you that your atheism was mistaken? Or that it was probably mistaken?

And if you’re a believer… what evidence would convince you that your belief was mistaken? Or that it was probably mistaken?

If you think your faith is falsifiable — if you would not answer the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” by saying, “Nothing would change my mind, that’s what it means to have faith” — then take Ebonmuse’s challenge. If you prepare a list of things you’d accept as proof that atheism is true, and you post it on the Internet, he’ll link to it, and open it to discussion on his blog.

Until you do, please don’t accuse atheists of being close-minded, or arrogant, or unwilling to consider new ideas and evidence.

It just makes you look silly.


Addendum: When I first posted this piece on AlterNet, a number of commenters argued that, when it comes to many of the pieces of evidence that would persuade me out of my atheism, the space alien hypothesis would be a much more plausible explanation than the God hypothesis. I think a case could certainly be made for that position.

But to some extent, I’m drawing the line here to prove a point. Yes, an argument could be made that “aliens” would be a more plausible explanation for the skywriting and so on than “God.” But even when I give religion the benefit of the doubt in the evidence game; even when I err on the side of giving religion greater credibility than it possibly deserves; even when I say, “If this skywriting thing happened, I would be persuaded to believe” — it still falls short.

What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?

Meme Vacation

I have an unusually action-packed week ahead of me, including my trip to Ohio to the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference. (At which I’m going to be the keynote speaker. Did I mention that?)

So I’m taking a vacation this week from the Atheist Memes of the Day. If you like passing the Memes along, feel free to dredge some up from the archives. Or make up some of your own. Enjoy, and I’ll be back with more atheist soundbites next week!

Meme Vacation

Greta: Keynote Speaker at Secular Student Alliance Conference!

Secular student alliance logo
Am looking over my blog, and realizing I somehow forgot to announce this earlier. D’oh! I’m going to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference, being held next week in Columbus, Ohio.

You heard me right — the freaking keynote speaker.

The conference is being held July 23-25, at Ohio State University. Registration is still available, and dorm housing is both available and super-cheap. Other speakers include Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist fame, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag and Boobquake fame, Skepticon host JT Eberhard, and more. I’m going to be giving the full- length, expanded disco version of my talk on What Atheists Can Learn From the LGBT Movement. Summary: The atheist movement is already modeling itself on the LGBT movement in many ways — most obviously with its focus on coming out of the closet. What else can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement… both from its successes and its failures? I’ll be speaking on Saturday evening, July 24, at 8:30 pm.

As the keynote speaker.

Did I mention that part?

Li’l ol’ me, blogging in my pajamas.

Atheist blogging is awesome.

Greta: Keynote Speaker at Secular Student Alliance Conference!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Disagreement Is Not Intolerance

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists often get called disrespectful, intolerant, or extremist for saying things like, “I don’t agree with you,” “There are flaws in your argument,” or, “What evidence do you have to support that?” If it’s not intolerant to say these things about politics, science, art, or any other topic, why should religion get special respect? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Disagreement Is Not Intolerance

How Sexism Hurts Men, Part 2: Why Do I Care?

So why do I care?

I devoted last week’s column to a silly pop-culture book, Undateable, which gives straight men snarky- but- sincere advice on how to make themselves attractive — no, strike that, tolerable — to women. I devoted the column to all the ways this book reinforces a rigid, narrow, absurdly unattainable vision of acceptable manhood, instilling men with anxiety and self-consciousness about their masculinity while at the same time exhorting them to be confident.

Today I want to answer the question: Why do I care?

Why do I care about sexism and gender normativity in ephemeral bits of pop culture fluff?

And why do I care about how sexism hurts men at all? With all the grotesque ways that sexism and gender normativity hurts women, why would I spend my time worrying about how it hurts men?


Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, How Sexism Hurts Men, Part 2: Why Do I Care? To find out why I care so much about rigid and sexist gender roles in trivial bits of pop culture fluff — and why I care at all about how rigid and sexist gender roles hurt men as well as women — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

How Sexism Hurts Men, Part 2: Why Do I Care?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Aren't Angry At God

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists are not angry at God. Any more than we’re angry at Zeus, unicorns, or the Tooth Fairy. Many atheists are angry about brutality, oppression, and fraud committed in the name of religion — but we’re not angry at God. We don’t believe in God. You can’t be angry at something you don’t think exists. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Aren't Angry At God

Mis-Matched Libidos: Can Mixed Marriages Ever Work?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

If your partner doesn’t like sex nearly as often as you do — or if they like sex a lot more often than you do — what can you do about it?

And when pondering this question, would your first and only answer be, “Break up”?

There’s this thing that happens to me freakishly often. I write a piece inspired by a Dan Savage “Savage Love” sex advice column. I spend a little time surfing around, looking at other stuff he’s been writing. And I find something that makes the top of my head come off in rage. Or at least, in profound irritation. I like the guy’s thinking most of the time… but when he gets it wrong, he gets it really, really wrong.

In this particular instance of wrongness, Savage was writing about a pattern he sees a lot in his letters: the problem of couples with mis-matched libidos. In many couples, one partner is more interested in sex than the other, and likes to have sex more often. A whole lot more often, in many cases. It’s a very common problem in relationships, and sex educators/ couples’ counselors/ sex advice columnists encounter it again and again and again. (And no — it isn’t always the man in opposite-sex couples who wants sex more. Very often, it’s not.)

Savage’s advice? To all these people?

Give up. It’s never going to work. He’s just not that into you. Or she. Save yourself a lot of misery in the years down the road… and just call it quits now.

A piece of advice that left my jaw hanging open in shock.

Really, Dan?

That’s your first and only answer?


I mean, just off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen options that couples with mis-matched libidos might want to try. Without even thinking about it all that hard. Before we go advising couples around the world to call it quits, why don’t we take a look at some of these options? (And if you can think of ones I don’t mention here, btw, please speak up in the comments. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of ideas — just a handful of the more obvious ones.)

Scheduling sex. I’ve written about this before. Many, many, many times, in fact. But I’m not sure I’ve ever written about it as a solution to this particular problem. So here goes: Scheduling sex isn’t just a solution for tired or stressed or over-scheduled couples. It can also be a solution for couples with mis-matched libidos. Oftentimes, in mis-matched- libido couples, the partner who wants sex more frequently will feel rejected and unwanted: if you’re the one who always makes the first move, and if you’re getting shot down more often than not, it can be very demoralizing. And the partner who wants sex less frequently can often feel pressured and inadequate. (All of which can lead to some nasty vicious circles/ self-fulfilling prophecies: nothing kills a libido faster than feeling like sex is an obligation.)

But if you schedule at least some of your sex life ahead of time, instead of relying on spur- of- the- moment impulses and advances, it can cut through a lot of these unfortunate dynamics. Sex becomes something you’re planning together, something you’re partnering in… rather than something one person is always asking for and the other is either accepting or shooting down. (It also makes some of the other solutions I’m proposing — like compromising, and re-thinking the circumstances under which you have sex — a whole lot more feasible.)

Re-defining sex. If one of you likes sex more often than the other, maybe you could re-define what you think of as “sex”… in a way that both of you would be happier with. What about mutual masturbation? Or one partner masturbating while the other one holds and caresses them? One partner masturbating while simply looking at the other partner: while they dance, or pose in erotic positions, or simply lounge and let themselves be admired? What about phone sex? Sharing fantasies? Reading each other dirty stories? What about using sex toys together, instead of having intercourse or other more direct flesh- on- flesh kinds of sex?

In other words: There are lots of different ways to have sex that can make one partner feel, not only orgasmically satisfied, but romantically and erotically connected with their partner… but that aren’t as sexually demanding for the partner who’s not as libidinous. And incorporating these kinds of sex into a sex life can go a long way towards bridging the gap in a libidinously mixed relationship.

Re-thinking the circumstances in which you have sex. Are there times of the day, or days of the week, when the less- sexually- interested party is even less interested than usual? As a couple, do you tend to have sex at the end of the day, when the less- interested partner is tired or stressed? Do you tend to have sex after parties or other social events — events that instill some of us, even the highly libidinous among us, with a profound need for a little alone time? (Introverts of the world, unite!) Do you tend to have sex after you’ve been drinking — an activity that makes some people feel friskier, but makes other people just feel groggy and out of it?

If so — try mixing it up. Look at the times and the circumstances when you’ve been having sex… and then look at the times and the circumstances when you want to have sex, when you think about sex, when sex pops into your mind of its own accord. And then try to tailor your sex life around the times and situations when you’re feeling frisky… instead of trying to shoehorn your frisky feelings into convenient times and situations for your sex life.

Compromising. If you like sex twice a week, and your partner likes twice a month… maybe you can compromise. Have sex every week so. It won’t be perfect for either of you… but being involved with someone who’s unhappy about sex is pretty darned far from perfect, too. Having sex somewhat less often than you’d really like — or somewhat more often — may not be what you’d pick if you could pick your perfect sex life… but presumably, if you love someone, you want them to be happy too, and you want them to have a sex life that’s good for them. Almost as much as you want a sex life that’s good for you. And even from a purely selfish perspective, being involved with a sad, disgruntled, sexually frustrated partner is ten pounds of suck in a five pound bag.

So while a compromise, by definition, isn’t going to be perfect, it may well be a whole better than a dissatisfying sex life. For both of you.

Opening up
Trying an open relationship. I’m the first to acknowledge: This solution isn’t for everybody. Not everyone is cut out for non-monogamy.

But it’s worth trying. Or at least considering. Lots of people do it very successfully. Including some people who were dubious when they started out. And for many couples in open relationships, the handling of mis-matched libidos is one of the biggest payoffs. One partner likes to boff more often than the other? They go boff someone else. An elegantly simple solution. (Sometimes messier in practice than in theory… but still.)

You might be skeptical about whether an open relationship can work for you. Fair enough. But if your mis-matched libido problem is so disruptive that you’re seriously considering breaking up over it, and if you really love each other and like each other and want to stay together and your mis-matched libidos are the only thing keeping you from that… why not at least give it a try? What’s the worst that could happen? It might not work, and you might break up?

Couples’ counseling. There are almost certainly couples for whom none of these solutions will work. Hell, forget about the “almost”: there are definitely couples for whom none of these solutions will work. For some couples, mis-matched libidos are a symptom of a problem, not a cause. Mistrust, bad communication, low self-esteem, sexual guilt, unaddressed resentment or hostility, etc. etc. etc.: any or all of this can lead to sexual disconnection, or exacerbate a disconnection that’s already happening. If that’s true, a pragmatic attempt to fix the symptom isn’t going to solve the problem. (Although it might provide some temporary relief, and might even alleviate some of the “vicious circle/ self-fulfilling prophecy” stuff that mis-matched libidos can generate.)

But even if that’s true, there are still options other than breaking up. Trying to actually handle those underlying problems is the obvious one. And couples’ counseling is an obvious way to do that.

And some couples, even if they don’t have serious non-sexual problems at the foundation of their sexual ones, still might have natural libidos that are so mis-matched that a pragmatic solution isn’t going to cut it. If one partner likes sex twice a day, and the other one likes it twice a year, it’s unlikely that any amount of scheduling and re-defining and compromising about sex is going to help. These couples are going to have to make some hard choices about their relationship: how important sex is to them, and whether they’d be happier apart than together, and whether they’d be happier as friends than as spouses or lovers.

But again, I don’t see why breaking up should be the go-to solution. It should be an option on the table, of course — but depending on the relationship, it might not be the best option. And again, these couples might benefit from counseling… if only to help them figure out which option is best for them.


I’m not saying break-ups are always bad. I don’t think that at all. With one obvious exception, every serious, Capital R Relationship I’ve ever been in has ultimately benefited from breaking up, and I was a whole lot better off for it.

And I do think the decision- making about this stuff is going to be different for different relationships. If you’ve got lots of other problems and you’re bickering all the time and nothing much else is going well, bailing makes more sense than if you deeply love each other and like each other and get along really well apart from the sex problems. And the decision- making is going to be especially different for different times in a relationship. If you’ve been with someone for three months and are already running across mis-matching libidos, it might make sense to bail now, early, before you’re seriously invested and breaking up is hard to do. If you’ve been with someone for three years, and you’re invested and committed and your lives are deeply intertwined, you might be a lot more inclined to try to make the mis-matched libido thing work.

So yes. Sometimes, Dan Savage’s advice is right. Sometimes, if you like sex a lot more often than your partner does — or if they like sex a lot more often than you do — breaking up is the best advice anyone could give.

But always?

In every situation?

As the first, reflexive, default choice?

Regardless of how long you’ve been together? Whether the sexual mis-matching is situational or consistent? Whether the sexual mis-matching is just about sex, or seems to be symptomatic of something else? How good the relationship is apart from the sex? How good the sex is when it does happen? All situations addressed in these letters, by the way: the letters are striking in their diversity, and the only thing they seem to have in common is this one problem of mis-matched libidos… and Savage’s one- size- fits all answer.

To which I can only inquire once again, with jaw still hanging open:



Addendum: When this piece was originally published, some people thought I was being too harsh on Savage. As many commenters pointed out, the advice I’m giving here is advice he himself has given on many occasions. Which is a fair point. Which I acknowledge. Which, IMO, makes this particular piece of his all the more baffling.

Mis-Matched Libidos: Can Mixed Marriages Ever Work?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Know What Atheism Is Better Than Believers

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It makes no sense for religious believers to insist that they know what atheism means better than atheists do. If you’re saying “Atheism means X,” and every atheist you talk to says, “No, that isn’t what it means at all,” perhaps you ought to listen to what we’re saying instead of to your own preconceptions. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Know What Atheism Is Better Than Believers

Stonewall Uprising

I think it’s important that we remember this:

The Gay Pride parades, held last month around the country and around the world, were commemorating a riot.

A series of riots, actually, which took place over a series of several days.

The Gay Pride parades held every June around the world — the stroller contingents, the church groups, the trucks with the booming sound systems and the rainbow balloons and the handsome young men gyrating in their underwear, the polo-shirted employees of assorted corporations, the local politicians waving from convertibles — all of this is done in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. A series of riots that took place over several days in June of 1969; a series of riots in which the queers — after being pushed and pushed and pushed again, by cops and lawmakers and psychiatrists and the news media and everyone else in the freaking world, for days and months and years, and then rounded up in what was supposed to be just one more police raid of one more Mafia-owned gay bar on one more summer evening — finally fought back. The literal kind of fighting back; the “setting fire to garbage cans and throwing rocks at cops” kind of fighting back.

I think it’s important that we remember this.

And I think it’s important to remember why they happened in the first place.

Stonewall Uprising is a really, really good way to remember.


Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, Stonewall Uprising. To find out more about the Stonewall riots, and how this documentary about them gives us crucial, inspiring, often hilarious perspective on queer activism today, or indeed on any sort of activism today — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Stonewall Uprising