“As honestly as I could”: My Interview with “First City” Magazine

Note to family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: This one you almost certainly want to stay away from. It discusses my sex life in some detail… and discusses aspects of my sex life that you probably don’t want to know about.

I recently did a very interesting interview with a very unexpected outlet: First City Magazine, the city magazine of Delhi, India. They did a long, thoughtful piece about the new Best Sex Writing 2008 anthology, and they included short interviews with several of the book’s contributors… including me.

The whole article is worth reading. Alas, it’s not currently on the web (they have a nifty blog, but their magazine isn’t online yet — the article is in their April 2008 issue, if you want to order a copy). But they graciously gave me permission to reprint the full text of the interview they did with me. We talked about my piece in BEC 2008 — Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive — along with definitions of sex, people’s expectations of sex writing, “Singing in the Rain,” and more. Enjoy!

First City: Tell us the process of being one of the chosen ones on the anthology. How did it evolve?

Greta: The piece, “Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive,” was a piece I wrote for a small, interesting, eclectic magazine here in San Francisco called Other. Actually, I originally wrote it for a different magazine, but it wound up being a lot longer than they were willing to publish — and one of the nice things about Other is that they publish longer, more in-depth think-pieces as well as short pithy ones. That’s increasingly rare in the magazine business.

Anyway, I thought that would be the end of it. I figured it’d run in Other, I’d reprint it on my blog at some point, and that would be that. Then Rachel Kramer Bussel, the editor of Best Sex Writing 2008, asked if she could reprint it in her anthology. I was thrilled. I like this piece a lot — I think it’s some of my better writing — and it’s on a topic that rarely gets talked about. Most writing about sex work is written about the workers; there’s not much being written about what it’s like to be a sex work customer. I’m glad to see it get a wider audience.

In your piece, you describe a visit to a professional submissive. Can you briefly explain what that involves?

Sure. Many people have heard of professional dominants: women (or sometimes men) who you pay to dominate you, spank you, whip you, order you around, etc. A professional submissive is like that, but the other way around: it’s someone you pay so you can dominate them, spank them, order them around, etc. There aren’t very many: it’s not an area of sex work you go into if you don’t enjoy it, and enjoy it a lot.

Like pro dominants, most pro submissives won’t have genital sex with their customers: largely to avoid prostitution laws, but partly to keep some boundaries. Typically, a customer of a pro dominant or submissive gets off by masturbating at the end of the session. But different people define “sex” very differently. The pro sub that I hired didn’t call what we did “sex,” but I sure would.

“Sometimes I think sex is a code word for every dirty, naughty, perverted thought anyone’s ever had,” is how Rachel puts it in her introduction to the book; how sex becomes like a representative word to use, sort of all-encompassing, even though it can (and does) mean different things to different people. What do you think? (And yes, I have read Are We Having Sex or What? So, is the question redundant then?)

That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d put it in those words, but she has a point. I do think our culture has a tendency to define sex very narrowly… and at the same time, we see it everywhere.

I definitely think this question applies directly to my piece, since the experience I write about — visiting a professional submissive — is very much one of those “Are we having sex now or what?” experiences. The pro submissive I visited, Rachel, was very clear that “sex” was off limits: I could dominate her and spank her and such, but I couldn’t have sex with her. And yet, even though I completely respected the limits she set, a lot of what we did I would most definitely call “sex.” Our personal definitions of what did and didn’t count as “sex” were very different. It’s one of the things that made it such an odd experience.

I thought the book (title and cover) might attract readers on the lookout for great sex writing, in the sense of this being a pick of the act of sex, described well by writers? Which it’s so not, right? What do you think?

I do think people who are purely looking for a naughty thrill may be disappointed by the book. There is sexually arousing, erotic writing in it — I think my piece is sexually arousing and erotic (a lot of it anyway) — but that’s not the main thrust of the book.

But even the pieces that aren’t naughty and exciting are very mind-opening. And that’s arousing and erotic in a different way. Having an open mind is key to having a great sex life.

What’s the response you’ve got so far to the book/your piece?

Positive so far. Mostly people are curious and interested. I haven’t gotten any angry “How could you oppress that poor woman by giving her money to spank her?” letters so far. Maybe I will, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Is there an ideal reader or audience you’re expecting?

Not really. Anyone who’s interested, I’m happy for them to read it. I would like it to be read by people who think paying for sexual pleasure makes you either a sleazy exploiter or a pathetic loser. But the piece isn’t just a pro- sex- work- customer polemic. Anyone who just wants to know what visiting a pro submissive was like is my ideal reader.

I think Buying Obedience gives us perhaps the best post-good-sex description in the book (‘loose, rumpled, hormone addled strut people get when they’ve just gotten it good’), besides making you wonder about paying for sex (and not just how weird/surreal it can be) vis-a-vis “pro bono sex.”

Thank you! What a nice thing to say.

Would you say you set out to achieve something for the reader, with the story? Bringing the anxieties you felt out into the open, so readers could identify? Or was it just about the writing of a personal experience for you?

My goal with this piece was just to be as honest about the experience as possible. Like I said before, there’s not a lot of writing about sex work from the customer’s point of view. So I just wanted to write it as honestly as I could. I didn’t want to demonize it, of course — I do think sex work can be a valid way to have sex, both for the worker and the customer — but I didn’t want to sugar-coat it, either. I just wanted to be as honest with my readers — and with myself — as I possibly could, about every aspect of the experience: good, bad, and just plain odd.

Other than that, I tried very hard in this piece to be both personal and analytical. I definitely wanted to describe the physical, emotional, sexual flavor of the experience as vividly as I could… but I didn’t want the piece to just be descriptive, either. I’m a very analytical person, and for me trying to understand an experience is a big part of capturing the flavor of it.

Any personal favourites from the book?

I think my favorite is “Sex in Iran.” It’s such a perfect portrait of how powerful the sexual impulse is. Sex completely defies any attempts to repress it. It makes me both angry about the terrible sexual oppression
that goes on in Iran and elsewhere in the world… and optimistic about the possibility for sexual pleasure despite it, and even for the oppression to someday be overturned.

Finally, just for fun: One song/book/film (all or one) that translates as ‘sex’ to you?

I don’t know about just one book or movie or song. I’m a very sexual person, and so many of them translate as ‘sex’ to me!

But I’ll tell you what’s leaping to mind right now: The dance scene between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in “Singing in the Rain.” The one where she’s wearing the green dress and is slinking around like crazy. She’s just so brazen, so open about her sexuality, so blatantly seductive… and she’s so beautiful and graceful doing it. They’re both such beautiful, graceful people, completely sensual and comfortable in their bodies. I’ve always thought that was one of the hottest sex scenes in the movies… even though there isn’t any sex in it!

Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in First City Magazine, New Delhi, India. Reprinted with permission.

“As honestly as I could”: My Interview with “First City” Magazine

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink: The Blowfish Blog

Note to family and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: This piece, and the piece it links to, doesn’t go into a lot of detail about my personal sex life, but it mentions it in passing. Use your judgment about whether you want to read it. Thanks.

I have a new piece on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a review of the new heist movie, “The Bank Job,” and… well, do you remember that Saturday Night Live sketch about the welder’s review of “Flashdance”? This is sort of like that.

This is the sadomasochist’s review of “The Bank Job.”

It’s called The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink, and here’s the teaser:

Now, secret sex — even secret sadomasochistic sex — being used to drive a movie plot is hardly unusual. It’s barely worth even mentioning, much less writing an entire column about. But there’s something about the kink in “The Bank Job” that’s very unusual indeed… so unusual in mainstream movies as to be almost unheard of.

And that’s this: The movie’s attitude towards the sadomasochism is entirely casual, and entirely non-judgmental.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink: The Blowfish Blog

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

When I first came out into the gay community, one of the most common party lines going around was, “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids than straight parents.” Some of the big political battles being fought at the time had to do with gay parenting, and the community was trying to reassure/ convince the straight world that it was “safe” for gay people to have and raise kids, that our kids wouldn’t be any more likely to be gay than anyone else’s. (Of course, many of us personally thought, “So what if our kids turn out gay? There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so why does it matter?” But we knew the straight world didn’t feel that way. Hence, the line.)

Not too long after that, I started hearing the party line, “Being gay isn’t a choice — we’re born that way.” Again, this was used in political discussions and debates, as a way of putting anti-gay discrimination in the same civil rights camp as racist or sexist discrimination… and as a way of gaining sympathy. Now, this would seem to be in direct contradiction with the “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” line. If people are born gay, doesn’t that mean it’s genetic, and doesn’t that mean gay parents are more likely to have gay kids? But in fact, these two party lines overlapped. I heard them both at the same time for quite a while… and I never heard a good explanation for why they weren’t contradictory. (Please see addendum at the end of this post for clarification of this point.)

Then I started hearing the strict constructionist line. “Sexual orientation is a social construct,” it said. “Our sexuality is formed by our culture. All that ‘we’re born that way’ stuff — that’s biological determinism, rigid, limiting, a denial of the fluid nature of sexuality and sexual identity.” (I am embarrassed to admit that I bought and sold this line myself for quite some time, in a pretty hard-line way… solely because I liked the idea.)

And now… well, now it’s kind of a mess. Some in the queer community say, “it’s genetic,” and argue that this is a core foundation of our fight for acceptance. Others fear that the “genetic” argument will lead to eugenics, parents aborting their gay fetuses, the genocide of our community. The constructionist line about rigidity and determinism still gets a fair amount of play. And more and more I’m starting to hear the combination theory: sexual orientation is shaped partly by genetics, partly by environment, and may be shaped differently for different people.

And in all of these debates and party lines, here’s what I never heard very much of:

Evidence to support the theory.

Or, to be more precise: Solid evidence to support the theory. Carefully gathered evidence. Evidence that wasn’t just anecdotal, that wasn’t just personal experience.

The line of the day — and the debates in our community surrounding it — always seemed to be based primarily on personal feeling and political expedience. I’d occasionally hear mention of twin studies or gay sheep or something… but that was the exception, not the rule. And the line has shifted around over the years, based not on new evidence, but on shifting political needs, and shifting ways that our community has defined itself.

I am profoundly disturbed by the ease with which many in the queer community are willing to dismiss the emerging science behind this question. Yes, of course, scientists are biased, and the research they do often reflects their biases. But flawed as it is, science is still the best method we have for getting at the truth of this question (and any other question about physical reality). Double-blinding, control groups, randomization of samples, replication of experiments, peer review: all of this has one purpose. The scientific method is deliberately designed to filter out bias and preconception, as much as is humanly possible.

It’s far from perfect. No reputable scientist would tell you otherwise. Among other things, it often takes time for this filtering process to happen. And it completely sucks when the filtering process is happening on your back: when you’re the one being put in a mental institution, for instance, because scientists haven’t yet figured out that homosexuality isn’t a mental illness. But when you look at the history of science over time, you see a consistent pattern of culturally biased science eventually being dropped in the face of a preponderance of evidence.

And if you’re concerned about bias affecting science, I think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists researching this question are themselves gay or gay-positive. We can no longer assume that scientists are “them,” malevolent or ignorant straight people examining us like freakish specimens. Many of them are us… and if they’re not, they’re our allies. Yes, science often reflects current cultural biases… but right now, the current cultural biases are a lot more gay-positive than they used to be. And that’s even more true among highly educated groups such as the scientific community.

But more to the point: What other options are being offered? How else do we propose to answer this question? Or any other question about the possible causes of human behavior? If answering it based on science is subject to bias, then isn’t answering it based on our own feelings and instincts even more subject to bias? How can we accuse scientists of bias in their attempts to answer this question — and use that accusation as a reason to dismiss the science — when our own responses to the question have been so thinly based on evidence, and so heavily based on personal preference and political expedience?

Unless you’re going to go with the hard-core deconstructionist argument that there is no reality and all of our perceptions and experiences are 100% socially constructed, then you have to accept that the question, “Is sexual orientation genetically determined, learned, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”… well, it’s a question with an answer. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s exactly the kind of question that science is designed to answer: a question of cause and effect in the physical world.

I’m not a scientist myself. But I’ve been following this question in the science blogs for a little while now. And as best I can tell, here’s the current scientific thinking on this question:

1) Sexual orientation is probably determined by some combination of genetics and environment (with in utero environment being another possible factor). (Here, btw, is a good summary of the current scientific research on this topic, and how it evolved.)

2) We really don’t know yet. The research is in the early stages. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment… but we really don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know which factor is more influential, or how they work together, or whether different people are shaped more by one factor and others by the other. We just don’t know.

But I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we would like to be true. We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we find most politically useful. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is true. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is best supported by the evidence.

If we don’t, then we are no better than the creationists, refusing to accept evolution because it screws up their view of the world. We are no better than the 17th century Catholic Church, refusing to accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun because it contradicted their theology. We are no better than the Bush administration, refusing to recognize clear warnings about Iraq and Katrina and global warming because it got in the way of their ideological happy thoughts. We are no better than the “Biology for Christian Schools” textbook, which states on Page 1 that, “”If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”

If we expect the straight world to accept the reality of our community, the reality that our lives and relationships and families are as healthy and stable as any other, then we ourselves need to be a committed part of the reality-based community. And we therefore need to accept the reality of the causes of our orientation… whatever that reality turns out to be.

So why don’t we try a different angle for a while. Maybe something like this:

“We don’t really know what causes sexual orientation. And we don’t think it matters. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment, but until more research is done, we don’t really know for sure. And we don’t think it matters. It’s an interesting question, one many people are curious about — but it doesn’t really matter. Homosexuality doesn’t harm anybody, and it doesn’t harm society, and our relationships are as healthy and stable and valid as anybody else’s… and it isn’t anybody’s business but our own.

“We deserve rights and recognition because we are human beings and citizens: as much as racial minorities, whose skin color is inborn, and as much as religious minorities, whose religion or lack thereof is learned. The ‘born versus learned’ question is a fascinating one, with many possible implications about human consciousness generally. But it has absolutely no bearing on questions like job discrimination, or adoption of children by same-sex couples, or whether we should be able to marry. We don’t yet know the answer to this question… but for any practical, political, social, or moral purposes, it absolutely does not matter.”


Addendum: As several commenters to this post have pointed out, it is actually possible for a trait (such as sexual orientation) to be genetically caused or influenced, and still not be any more likely for parents with that trait to have kids with it than parents without it. Fair point, and worth knowing. But I think my basic point about party lines, and the prioritization of political expedience over scientific evidence,still stands. After all, we didn’t know that in the early ’90s. Geneticists may have known it, I don’t know — but lay people in the queer community definitely didn’t. And yet we were still willing to repeat both tropes: the “we’re born that way” trope and the “gay parents aren’t any more likely than straight parents to have gay kids” trope.

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

Fuck Anything That Flies: Bisexuality, Fruit Flies, And The Causes Of Sexual Orientation

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

I love science.

From the vaunted Pharyngula science blog comes this hilarious and enlightening news of mutant bisexual fruit flies.

(As they say on Mythbusters: “Warning: Science Content.” Lots of it, if you read the whole linked story.)

The gist, in case you don’t feel like reading all the darned neuroscience: In a particular species of fly, there is an occasional genetic variation — I’m trying not to call it a mutation, that’s such a judgmental word — that causes them to behave bisexually. It causes some females to try to initiate sex with other females; it causes some males to wait for other males to initiate courtship; and it causes some males to attempt, equally, to initiate courtship with both females and males.

They will, to be blunt, fuck anything that flies.

And researchers haven’t just identified the existence of the mutation — excuse me, the variation. They haven’t just identified the gene that causes it, even. They’ve identified the specific neurological mechanism.

(Hence the science content.)

Now, PZ Myers, Pharyngula blogger of song and story, warns that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what this might mean for human sexuality. And I think he’s right to do so. Human beings are rather more complex than fruit flies. And our sexuality is, to put it mildly, a lot more complex. Fruit flies don’t, for instance, get hot for spanking, for latex, for women in seamed stockings, for men in seamed stockings, for bits and saddles, for stuffed animals, for cartoon characters, for curly-haired brunettes who look like Bette Davis.

So the fact that sexual orientation is genetically determined in fruit flies doesn’t prove, even a little bit, that it’s genetically determined in humans.

But it does tell us something about humans, and human sexuality.

It doesn’t tell us that our sexual orientation is genetically determined, or even genetically influenced.

But it tells us that it might be.

It tells us that it’s not ridiculous to consider the possibility.

It tells us that, at least in some animals, a tendency towards heterosexuality or bisexuality — and arguably homosexuality, if you think about those male flies waiting coyly for the other male flies to make the first move — is genetically determined. Entirely, as far as anyone can tell. And therefore, it tells us that it’s not out of the question to think that it might be genetically determined — at least partially — in other animals as well.

Including humans.

And this is an important message: not just for the homophobic right wing, but for the queer-theory crowd as well.

There are queer theorists and activists who would be delighted to learn that sexual orientation is genetically determined at birth. For no other reason, they think it makes the civil rights battle easier to fight if they can play the “We were born this way” card. There are queer theorists and activists who think, not only that we might be born queer, but that we definitely are, and that the case is closed.

And there are queer theorists and activists who would be appalled to learn that orientation is determined by genetics. Even partially determined by genetics. Even a little bit determined by genetics. There are queer theorists and activists who actively resist this idea, who see it as dangerous and oppressive. There are queer theorists and activists who not only disagree with this theory, but who think that we should not even be considering it.

But here’s the thing.

We shouldn’t be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we would like to be true.

We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is true. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is supported by the evidence.

The question, “Is (X) behavior learned, genetically determined, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”… this is, at least in theory, a question that can be answered. When it comes to human sexuality, it’s probably beyond our current grasp… but that doesn’t mean it always will be. It’s probably going to wind up having an unbelievably complicated answer, but it’s not the kind of question that inherently can’t be answered with evidence and the scientific method. It’s actually exactly the kind of question that the scientific method was designed to answer.

In fact, we’re already beginning to gather some non-trivial data on this subject. And while the science is still in its infancy, or at least in its childhood, the current evidence seems to be leaning in the direction of “some combination of both.” When it comes to human sexual orientation, genetics, at the very least, probably plays a significant role.

My inner twenty-something queer-theory constructionist is cringing at this. When I came out and started becoming active in the queer community, constructionism (“it’s learned”) was all the rage, and essentialism (“it’s inborn”) was seen as rigid and confining. It’s been hard for me to accept the idea that sexual orientation may not, in fact, be entirely a product of a patriarchal society.

But my inner twenty-something queer-theory constructionist needs to get over it. The question of whether sexual orientation is born, learned, or both — and if both, how and how much — is not a question of opinion. It is not a question of politics or philosophy. And while there will almost certainly be ethical implications in the answer, it’s not a question that should be answered based on which answer we think is morally right or wrong.

It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of reality. And I think that’s how we should be looking at it.

Because no good — politically, ethically, philosophically, or any other way — has ever come from the denial of reality.

Fuck Anything That Flies: Bisexuality, Fruit Flies, And The Causes Of Sexual Orientation

Come See Me Read! Perverts Put Out, Sat. April 19

If you’re going to be in the San Francisco area this Saturday, come see me read! I’ll be reading at the vaunted and notorious Perverts Put Out series, Saturday, April 19, at the Center for Sex and Culture. Other sex writers reading that evening will include Jim Provenzano, Kirk Read, Steven Schwartz, horehound stillpoint, Fran Varian, and emcees Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard. In celebration of tax season, this will the the very special FTIRS edition of Perverts Put Out.

The Center for Sex and Culture is at 1519 Mission Street, near Van Ness, in San Francisco. It’s very close to the Van Ness MUNI stop and to many Market Street buses, and not that far from the Civic Center BART stop. Perverts Put Out starts at 7:30, and admission is $10-15 on a sliding scale. Hope to see you there!

Come See Me Read! Perverts Put Out, Sat. April 19

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes

I’m not sure when I started noticing this turn of phrase. But I think it was during one of our Project Runway marathons. When designers lose a challenge and get kicked off the show, roughly half of them say something along these lines:

“Obviously I’m disappointed… but I think everything happens for a reason.”

And it’s driving me nuts. Not just when I’m watching Project Runway… but all the time. Whether it’s presented in conventional theistic terms — God has a plan for us all — or in more vague, woo terms — X happened because it was meant to happen, it happened to teach me a lesson, I guess the universe is trying to tell me something — it still drives me nuts. (I think it drives me especially nuts because I used to believe it myself, and I’m always more irritated with irrational beliefs that I used to hold myself.)

I mean, in the most literal sense of the words, of course everything happens for a reason — if by “for a reason” you mean “as a result of cause and effect.” Earthquakes happen because of shifting plates in the earth; I got pneumonia because I got bacteria in my lungs at a time when I was physically vulnerable; designers get kicked off Project Runway because the judges don’t like their designs. And since every effect has its own cause, you can trace that chain of cause and effect almost as far back as you like, until you run out of either knowledge or patience.

But that’s clearly not what people mean when they say that everything happens for a reason. They mean that everything happens for a purpose. They mean that everything that happens has intention behind it. They mean that earthquakes and illnesses and getting kicked off reality shows are part of a plan, either a conscious plan of God or an unconscious plan of some vague Fate or World-Soul or Universe… a plan to teach us lessons, or to point our lives in new and fruitful directions, or to give us things we need and don’t find it easy to accept.

And it bugs me.

It bugs me for the obvious reason: I think it’s mistaken, and I think it’s a mistaken idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason, simply because it is mistaken.

But it also bugs me because I think it hinders the learning process. It gets in the way of learning from your mistakes. It’s not like every bad thing that happens to you is a result of your mistakes, of course. But if you think that every bad thing that happens to you happens because it serves some larger purpose, how are you going to figure out which bad things are things you could have avoided, and could avoid in the future? How are you going to have a clear perspective on which parts of your life are things that you caused, which are things that other people caused, and which are just accidents that nobody could have any control over?

And it’s so unnecessary. I understand that “Everything happens for a reason” is often a way of saying, “This happened so I could learn from it.” But it’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, without believing that someone or something made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson. In fact, it’s not just possible — it’s easier. What with the clearer perspective on cause and effect, and all.

More on all that in a bit. I think there are a few basic processes driving this kind of thinking, and I want to take a quick look at them all so I can take them apart.

1. False perception of intention. The human mind has evolved — for very good evolutionary reasons — to see intention, even when no intention exists. Michael Shermer talks about this in How We Believe. Example: When shown triangles moving about on a screen, people tend to describe the action as the triangles “chasing” each other or otherwise acting with intention… when in fact the pattern was completely random.

2. Rationalization. Saying that “everything happens for a reason” can be a great way to evade responsibility when the “everything” that happened is, in fact, your fault. “Yes, I didn’t study and I flunked chemistry and now I can’t go to medical school… but everything happens for a reason. I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school. I guess I was meant to repair VWs and grow marijuana.”

3. Saving face. This is a lot like rationalization, except that it’s less about making a good excuse that you yourself can believe, and more about not wanting to look like a loser in front of others.

4. Wanting to find meaning. This one I have more sympathy with than any of the others (although I actually have at least some sympathy with all of them). Believing that everything happens for a reason is a way to make the lousy things that happen in your life feel like they have some meaning. If you can convince yourself that there’s some Greater Purpose to getting laid off and your car breaking down… well, some people find that more comforting than thinking that Sometimes Shit Happens, with no purpose or function. (I sure don’t, but that’s another post.)

So let’s take a look at these.

1. False perception of intention. Not sure what else I have to say about this. Again, the human mind has evolved to see intention even when none exists. If we see our lives as shaped by some external guide, when that guide doesn’t really exist, it skews our ability to see how we affected the situation ourselves… and what we might do in the future to make things turn out differently.

2. Rationalization. I get that we all rationalize our mistakes and failures. And I even get that rationalization is psychologically necessary, to let us make decisions and live with them and not have dark nights of the soul every night. I just think that “Everything happens for a reason” is a particularly pernicious rationalization, one that mucks up the learning process and creates a passive approach to life. Try some other rationalizations instead. “I was having a bad day,” “I didn’t understand the instructions,” “I guess you can’t please everybody”… these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone’s brilliant master plan.

3. Saving face. Again, I get it. You flunk out of chemistry or get kicked off Project Runway; you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends and family and millions of strangers. But again, there are better ways to save face than the “Everything happens for a reason” trope — ways that don’t encourage passivity and get in the way of learning from mistakes. The losing “Project Runway” designers who didn’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” had some excellent ones. “I’m sorry I lost, but I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t have done it differently.” “This week’s challenge was hard for me, and I didn’t do my best work — I’m just sorry I didn’t get a chance to show the world what a great designer I am.” And my personal favorite: “I learned a lot from this experience, and I’m going to come out of it a better designer.”

4. Wanting to find meaning. And again, I get it. Mistakes and failures and pain… well, they suck. Believing that they have meaning can help make them suck less. But I think there are far, far better ways to get meaning from your mistakes than, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, and to weave them into the meaning of our lives, without believing that someone or something outside of us made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson.

It seems to me that the “Everything happens for a reason” philosophy is kind of a passive one. It’s a philosophy that sees the plan for your life — and the meaning of that life — as belonging to someone other than yourself. It’s a philosophy that looks out in the world for signs and clues about what you should be doing, instead of looking at yourself and your own life.

And it’s a way of avoiding responsibility — not just the obvious responsibility for your mistakes, but responsibility for the desires you have and the choices you make. Saying, “I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school” means you don’t have to say, “I guess I don’t actually want to go to medical school,” or, “I guess I screwed up my chances of going to medical school.”

Or, for that matter, “I guess if I want to go to medical school, then I need to make some serious changes.”

I remember this vividly from my own woo days. The number of times that I said to myself. “I guess I was meant to do X,” or, “I guess I wasn’t meant to do Y”… it’s embarrassing to think of it now. I was meant to live in San Francisco, and to work for On Our Backs; I wasn’t meant to stay in my first marriage, or to go to nursing school.

It would have been a lot more honest for me to say, “I guess I really want to do X,” or, “I guess I really don’t want to do Y.” But it was so much easier to interpret the successes and failures of my life, and the happy and unhappy accidents, as signs and symbols from a benevolent spirit guiding me to my path, then it was to think of them as my own damn choices intersecting with random chance. The benevolent guiding spirit of the universe seemed so much kinder and more thoughtful than the indifference and stupidity of random chance; and it seemed about a thousand times smarter and wiser than I knew myself to be. It was a belief that let me avoid taking responsibility for my choices and desires — and the ways that they shaped my circumstances and opportunities — without feeling like a piece of paper being blown about by the wind.

But I can’t believe it any more. The evidence just doesn’t support it. And letting go of that belief has made me both more responsible and more accepting. It’s like the atheist version of the Serenity prayer. Letting go of thinking that everything happens for a reason has helped me have more courage to change things that I can, more serenity to accept things that I can’t, and more wisdom to know the difference.

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes

Dreams, Pop Songs, and Joe Hill

And speaking of dreams…

It’s always bugged me a little that, when pop songs and folk songs talk about dreams, they never sound like any dream I’ve ever had. No blogging about atheist plumbing; no shoe store run by the Museum of Modern Art; no evil balloon animals trying to kill my girlfriend. No surrealism at all. Dreams in pop songs and folk song are almost always ridiculously straightforward. “I dreamed that the girl I had a crush on was dating me.” “I dreamed that my ex and I were back together.” “I dreamed that a dead labor leader was giving me advice about life.”

Okay — that last one is pretty surreal, now that I think about it.

Anyway, I was thinking about what a folk or pop song would be like if it were about actual dreams. And I haven’t shared a song parody here in a while — and this is one of my favorites. Hence the following. (To the tune of “Joe Hill” by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, popularized by Joan Baez.)

Joe Hill
by Greta Christina

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
In my old high school hall
He asked about my big math test
And bounced a bright red ball
And bounced a bright red ball.

“I spaced out on my math test, Joe
I’m going to fail,” said I.
Then we were in my living room
And Joe began to fly
And Joe began to fly.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
He looked just like my dad
I offered him a hard-boiled egg
But Joe just looked real sad
But Joe just looked real sad.

(Next week: “Suzanne.”)

Other posts in this series:
Super Geek

Dreams, Pop Songs, and Joe Hill

Atheist Plumbing

As promised. Sometimes dreams really do come true…

Questions of religious belief — or the lack thereof — can touch every aspect of our everyday lives. The effect can be obvious or unconscious; powerful or subtle. And yet it is in these everyday applications where theology or the lack thereof can touch us most deeply: in our approach to commuting, to home electronics, to long distance providers, to auto maintenance.

And, of course, to plumbing.

The theistic approach to plumbing is well-known. Drains that are clogged or free-flowing; toilets that flush or overflow; water heaters that are reliable or inefficient — all of these are seen as the work of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent Great Plumber, who ultimately has our best interests at heart. The clogs and overflows, the scalding or freezing showers: these are seen as punishments for sins against God. Or as tests of faith. Or, if all else fails, as that last-ditch, circular excuse: mysterious ways.

But the evidence does not bear this viewpoint out. Even a cursory glance at the workings of the world shows that good and bad plumbing strikes good and bad people in roughly equal proportions, apparently at random. In fact, recent research shows that countries with high rates of religious belief are more likely to suffer from bad plumbing, not less. And while few would argue that religious belief actually causes bad plumbing (it’s far more likely that poverty and poor education results in higher rates of both), it is clear to all but the most fervently close-minded true believer that, if God is handing out good and bad plumbing as reward and punishment for good and bad lives, his systems and pipe fittings leaves a great deal to be desired.

Many theists cling to their belief in the Unclogged Clogger as a source of great comfort, and find it impossible to imagine how anyone could find meaning in a world where clean flushes and dripping faucets are doled out by an unconscious and therefore indifferent universe. But the atheist approach to plumbing is not only better supported by the evidence — it is far more effective as well. Atheists see good or bad plumbing as resulting simply from cause and effect in the physical world. And therefore, I believe, we are better equipped to deal with them: to see with clear eyes which of life’s clogs can be plunged, which can be Dranoed, and which must simply be accepted.

The Great Wrench is not in God’s hand, or in Satan’s. It is in our own. What could be more comforting than that?

Atheist Plumbing