Why Is It Hard To Lose Weight?

Most fat people who try to lose weight aren’t successful. Does it make more sense to blame fat people for lacking self- control… or to change public policy about food and health?

Fat woman
“Fat people are just lazy. The only reason they’re fat is that they have no self-control, no willpower. If they want to lose weight, all they need to do is eat less and exercise more. It’s that simple.”

You’ve almost certainly heard this chorus. Every time I write about weight management and food politics, it’s guaranteed that someone will start railing about how fat people are fat because of their own laziness, poor self-control, lack of discipline, etc. And it’s all over popular culture. According to these folks, trying to address obesity as a public health issue, by changing public policy about agriculture subsidies and food labeling and school lunch programs and city planning and so on… it’s a waste of time. Worse than a waste of time, even: it’s the nanny state run amok, coddling people who won’t take care of themselves, treating people as if they had no personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

There’s just one little problem with this notion:

There’s no good reason to think it’s true.

Actually, there are lots of things wrong with this notion. It’s grossly bigoted and insulting, for starters. And it does absolutely nothing to address the situation. If you genuinely think obesity is a health problem that people ought to do something about… telling people that they’re lazy slobs who just need to straighten up and fly right isn’t exactly being part of the solution. In fact, it may even be part of the problem.

But mostly, there’s just no good reason to think it’s true. Rates of obesity have been going up dramatically in the last few decades. And they typically go up whenever a modern American diet gets introduced to a culture. Does it really make sense to think that human psychology and human nature has radically changed in the last few decades: that as a species, we’ve somehow evolved to be lazier and less self-disciplined in just a few generations? Or that the introduction of a modern American diet somehow magically zaps the willpower center of the human brain?

And if human nature hasn’t changed that radically in a few generations, but human bodies have… doesn’t it make more sense to think that something else has changed? Something about the food environment we live in? Something about our culture, our economy, our public policy… and the way these things interact with human physiology and psychology? Something about high- calorie processed food being easily and cheaply available on every street corner? Physical education getting pared to the bone in public schools? Our government subsidizing high-calorie/ low- nutrition food? Food ads on TV approximately every six nanoseconds?

This is a huge topic, and it’s not one I can even come close to completely covering in one blog post. And I should spell out right now: I am not an expert in this field. I am not a nutritionist, or a physiologist, or an economist, or a researcher on weight loss. What I am is a smart, reasonably well- read lay person who’s done extensive reading about both weight management and food politics. And I’m a person who has personally lost a significant amount of weight… and who therefore knows, first- hand, many of the things that make weight management easier, and many of the things that make it harder.

And I’m going to break those things down into four broad categories: money, public policy, corporate greed, and evolutionary hard-wiring… all of which are intricately interwoven.

Physiology and evolution.

Origin of species
When it comes to food and hunger, here’s the first thing you have to remember: Human appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of food scarcity and intense food competition. For that matter, we’re descended from hundreds of millions of years’ worth of pre-human ancestors, who also lived in environments of food scarcity, intense food competition, or both.

And as a result, we have some very powerful, deeply ingrained instincts about food. We are hard-wired by evolution to get hungry whenever we see food. We are hard-wired by evolution to eat whatever food is in front of us. We are hard-wired by evolution to keep eating, to eat as much of what’s in front of us as we can without bursting. We are hard-wired by evolution to want high-calorie foods, rich in fat and sugar. We are hard-wired by evolution to conserve our energy, and not expend any more of it than we really need to.

And, of course, our bodies evolved to store food in the form of fat: to store excess calories that were available in times of feast, so we could more easily survive in times of famine.

Now, all these evolutionary strategies worked very well for us 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, when we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from, and food rotted or got eaten by someone else if we didn’t eat it all right away, and if we didn’t eat this entire gazelle right now we might very well starve to death. In fact, these strategies worked pretty well up to the last hundred years or so: obesity was a fairly uncommon medical problem until the last few decades.

Wendys baconator
But these strategies really, really don’t work in the modern Western food environment. They don’t work in an environment where we see food, or images of food, hundreds of times a day. They don’t work in an environment where we can easily acquire as many calories as our bodies can absorb, far more than we actually need, every day of our lives. They don’t work in an environment where food can be stored in warehouses and stores and pantries indefinitely, and doesn’t have to be eaten right away and stored in the form of fat before it either rots or gets stolen by another animal. They don’t work in an environment where sugary, fatty, high- calorie foods, far from being scarce, are easily and cheaply available everywhere we look: where they’re actually the cheapest and most easily available foods around. And evolution, nifty though it is, simply can’t work fast enough to catch up with these radical and rapid changes.

We live in a toxic, obesogenic food environment. There’s a reason more people are fat now than ever before — and it’s not because we’ve suddenly become incapable of controlling our appetites. It’s because our food environment has radically changed in the last few decades, and our appetites are now completely out of whack with it. Blaming fat people for getting fat and not losing weight is like blaming people in the Middle Ages for getting the bubonic plague. Yes, some people get fat, and some don’t. Some people in the Middle Ages got the plague, and some didn’t. Some people had a natural immunity to the plague, or happened to live in a part of the continent where it was less virulent, or just got lucky and didn’t get exposed to it. And some people have natural resistance to obesity: more active metabolisms, less powerful hunger triggers, quicker satiety points, whatever. If they’d been born on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, they might have been hosed — but they got born now, so they’re lucky.

What’s more, we live in a food environment that doesn’t just make adults fat. It makes kids fat. Childhood obesity is one of the strongest predictors of adult obesity — and people who were fat as kids have a harder time losing weight and maintaining weight loss as adults. (There are probably a whole host of reasons for this, both physical and psychological: from altered metabolism, to altered hunger and satiety triggers, to eating and exercise habits that are harder to change when they get ingrained early in life.) Are you going to blame kids for not having the willpower to reject the food their parents and schools are feeding them? And are you going to blame the adults they grow up to be for having had the bad luck to be fat kids?

But, of course, all of this really just begs the question. Yes, we live in an obesogenic food environment, one that makes unhealthy food choices easy and cheap and available everywhere, and that makes healthy food choices scarce and expensive and a pain in the butt. But why do we live in that environment? What created it?

Corporate greed.

Fast food nation
Well, for one thing: You want to know who else knows, in intimate and thorough detail, everything I’ve been saying about human food psychology, about hunger triggers and satiety triggers and so on?

Multinational food corporations.

Who are using this information to make themselves obscenely rich, by selling us food we don’t need and that makes us sick.

We live, as I said, in a toxic/ obesogenic food environment. The food that’s readily, easily, cheaply available on just about every street corner in America is the food that makes people fat. Sugary, starchy, fatty, highly processed: this is the food that’s everywhere. It’s high calorie, which makes us fat for obvious reasons… and it’s low in nutrients, which means it’s not satisfying, which means we keep on eating.

And there’s a reason we live in this food environment. We live in this food environment because it’s been created by multinational food corporations — who are making money hand over fist doing it.

Omnivores Dilemma
As Michael Pollan reported in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food corporations used to think that the basic demand for food was inelastic: that people would only eat a certain amount of food, so you could only increase your market share by cutting into your competition. But ever since the advent of supersizing in the 1960s — charging more for larger portions instead of making people buy multiple servings — food corporations have been geared, not only towards encouraging Americans to eat more of their particular brand of foods, but to eat more food, period. (According to Pollan, agribusiness now produces 3,800 calories of food a day for every American — 500 calories more than it produced 30 years ago.)

We see this all over food packaging and marketing. It’s not just about supersizing… although that’s a huge part of it. It’s about the kinds of foods we’re hard-wired to eat — our evolutionary wiring makes us want sweet and fatty foods, so those are the foods that are manufactured and marketed most heavily. It’s about smaller unit sizes — people will eat more of a food if the individual pieces of it come in smaller sizes, so food corporations started marketing bite-sized cookies and crackers. It’s about merging salty with sweet — people will eat more overall if they’re eating salty and sweet things at the same time, so processed foods are increasingly being tailored to include both. And, of course, it’s about making food ubiquitous, so we’re constantly being triggered to get hungry, and to eat.

But it isn’t just the food itself that’s everywhere. Food triggers are everywhere. There are ads for food on TV approximately every six nanoseconds — and the food being advertised on TV is overwhelmingly junk food. There are ads for junk food in magazines, newspapers, billboards, buses… all around us. Our brains evolved to get hungry when we see food — and we now see food, or images of food, all the freaking time. We’re exposed to far more advertising of all kinds today than we used to be — which, of course, includes more food ads. And the advertising is very carefully designed, by people who are experts in human psychology, to manipulate our hunger triggers, and to maximize how much and how often we want to eat.

What’s more, food corporations have been intensely engaged, not only in getting Americans to eat more, but in getting Americans to believe that eating more isn’t what’s making us fat. To put it bluntly: Big Food is making a calculated effort to make people believe that obesity should be treated, not by changing what and how much we eat, but with exercise. Which, alas, runs contrary to a significant body of research showing exactly the opposite: that while exercise is somewhat important for weight management, it’s not nearly as important as reducing calories. I’ll quote Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the nutrition/ weight management expert behind the Weighty Matters blog, who says it way better than I could: “The message that obesity can be prevented or treated with exercise is an important one to the food industry as it shifts the blame for obesity from the consumption of their calorific products to a decline in fitness, a link which at best is described as debatable and at worst, inconsequential.”

Finally — well okay, not finally, I could rant about this topic for pages, but I need to get on with it — food corporations are very powerful politically, and they have their hands all over public policy. From agricultural subsidies to obesity prevention programs to food education in schools, Big Food is actively and vigorously engaged in making sure that government policy about food and health is designed to be as friendly to the food industry as possible. Largely because of the influence of Big Food, government policy about food and health is internally contradictory to the point of being bonkers, and much of it is designed, not to keep people healthy, but to keep Big Food rich.

Public policy.

So what are these public policies that Big Food has its hands all over?

Well, let’s start with agricultural subsidies. In the U.S., we heavily subsidize corn, wheat, feed grains for meat and dairy. Broccoli and apples… not so much. Fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty” crops by the USDA. And corn doesn’t just appear in our diets in the form of yummy corn on the cob — it appears freaking everywhere, in processed foods of almost every kind… and of course, in high- fructose corn syrup. Michael Pollan writes about this a lot, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and elsewhere: the deceptively low cost of processed food and fast food comes in large part from government policies that encourage the mass production of high- calorie processed food that stores easily and for long times. Those cheap sugary breakfast cereals made of corn and high- fructose corn syrup? They’re not actually so cheap. You’re paying for them with your taxes.

Dairy management i love cheese
Here’s a classic example of this: how government subsidies and policies work to increase the sales of high- calorie food, even while they’re supposedly trying to get people to lose weight. An organization called Dairy Management — a marketing creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has been teaming up with fast food companies, from Wendy’s to Burger King, Taco Bell to Pizza Hut, to increase the amount of cheese they include in their products. When sales of Domino’s Pizza were lagging, they stepped in… not only to help them sell more pizza, but to advise them to make their pizza more appealing by making it cheesier. They even promoted and publicized research supposedly showing that consuming dairy products aided in weight loss… and continued this publicity campaign even when the research clearly showed that this claim was entirely without merit. And in their reports to Congress, the Agriculture Department tallies Dairy Management’s successes in millions of pounds of cheese served. The organization exists solely to promote the sale and consumption of dairy products, especially cheese, to Americans.

And at the exact same time, the Department of Agriculture is pushing a federal anti-obesity drive that, among other things, discourages the consumption of high-calorie, high-saturated-fat food.

You know… like cheese.

I could gas on about this topic for hours. School lunch programs filled with fatty, starchy, sugary, high-calorie food. Physical education programs being cut back all across the country. City planning that supports fast-food strip malls at the expense of grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Transportation systems built around driving instead of walking, biking, or even public transit (which usually requires at least some walking). But I want to move on, so I’ll wrap up my policy wonkage by saying this:

Think about all the tax money that subsidizes the big agribusiness production of cheese and meat and high-fructose corn syrup. And think about what our food environment would be like if, instead, that tax money was subsidizing farmer’s markets. Or companies that deliver organic produce to your home. Or small farmers who sell primarily to local stores and customers. Or even just, for heaven’s sake, growers of fruits and vegetables. Think about what things would be like if it were cheaper to go to the farmer’s market instead of McDonald’s; if it were cheaper to get oranges and yogurt delivered to your house instead of pizza. Think of what our food world would be like — and what our bodies would be like as a result.

And speaking of money:


There are a lot of reasons losing weight is hard. But one of the most insidious ones is also one of the simplest. It’s that fact that, in modern Western culture, staying fat is cheap, and losing weight is expensive.

Decades and centuries ago, being fat probably meant you were pretty rich. Food was hard to come by — high- calorie food especially so — and poor people tended to do intense physical labor, while rich people had leisure to hang about in the parlor.

Today, pretty much the exact opposite is true. Yes, there are rich fat people and thin poor people. But being fat in America is increasingly correlated with being poor… and losing weight, or maintaining a healthy weight, is increasingly a privilege that’s associated with the comfortably off.

For starters: Cheap food tends to be high-calorie food. This wasn’t true a hundred years ago… but it sure is now. There are a lot of reasons for this — the gradual switch to centralized and industrialized food production leaps to mind (people aren’t growing their own crops so much these days) — but again, government subsidies have a huge amount to do with it. Our taxes subsidize corn and sugar, dairy and meat. Our taxes make fatty, starchy, sugary food the cheapest food around.

And healthy food tends to be perishable… which also makes it expensive. Buying fruits, vegetables, fish, yogurt, etc. means letting some of it go bad. If you’re on a shoestring budget, you simply may not be able to afford that. The food you can get from centralized, industrialized food production sources — the stuff that can sit on grocery store shelves until Armageddon — is the stuff that will sit on your own pantry shelves until Armageddon, and you’ll never have to throw it away.

Healthy food is also more expensive if you’re buying the good stuff — i.e., the edible stuff. It’s a lot easier to sustain a low- calorie diet if you’re eating delicious food from the farmer’s market or the organic delivery basket or Whole Paycheck. If you’re buying tasteless, mealy, cardboard produce from the megafood supermarket — because that’s all you have access to in your neighborhood, or that’s all you can afford — it’s not so easy. I don’t know if I could have stuck with my own weight loss plan if the only produce I could eat was from Megalomart. I’d probably be back on mac and cheese and Snickers bars within a month.

Then there’s the connection between money and time. Successful weight management takes time: time to shop, time to cook, time to clean up the dinner dishes. And lots of poor/ marginal/ struggling Americans are working two jobs, or have long terrible commutes, or are juggling work and family and other commitments. Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans subsist largely on fast food and convenience food — food that makes us fat.

There’s also the little matter of gym memberships. No, they’re not absolutely necessary for good health and weight management. But they sure do help. For a lot of people, anyway. I, for one, find it a hell of a lot easier to get motivated about working out at the gym than working out at home. After all, all I have to do to make a gym workout happen is to get myself there. Once I’m there… what the hell else am I going to do? Working out at home is way, way harder to sustain. Too many distractions and comforts. What’s more, many fat people report that, when they jog or exercise in public, they get publicly mocked by strangers… making those cheap forms of exercise really, really difficult to sustain. (And can I just say: How fucked up is that? What the hell kind of person derides fat people for being lazy and undisciplined… and then derides them for actually trying to take action on managing their weight and health?)

And we haven’t even touched on the problem of food deserts. There are large sections of the Western world where there are no grocery stores or supermarkets for miles and miles. The only food available — literally — is food from convenience stores, gas stations, fast food spots, and the like. If the only way I could get a fresh vegetable was to take the bus across town and schlep my grocery bags back home, I’d probably be eating at McDonald’s, too.

There’s a famous saying that fat is a feminist issue. It is. But fat is also increasingly a class issue. Staying fat is cheap. Losing weight is expensive. There’s no two ways around it. It’s not about being lazy, or weak-willed, or undisciplined, or anything like that. For a whole lot of people, it’s about struggling to make ends meet. And unless you want to start blaming poor people for being poor, it doesn’t make any sense to blame fat people for being fat.

Part of the Solution — or Part of the Problem?

Greta simpsons avatar thin
It may seem a little odd for me to be saying all this. After all, I am someone who’s lost a significant amount of weight (60 pounds in a year and a half), and who so far has successfully kept it off for several months. And I’ve written a great deal about the process… with an eye towards helping other people lose weight if they want to. If I didn’t think weight loss was within individual people’s grasp… why would I bother giving advice on how to do it? Why would I have even tried to do it myself?

Because it’s not that simple. Because weight loss was extremely difficult for me… and I’m someone who had just about everything going for me to make it work. Because I know that I have enough time to shop and cook for myself, enough money to afford healthy fresh food, enough money to afford a gym membership, a neighborhood where healthy fresh food is readily available, a health- conscious city that encourages good eating and exercise habits, a supportive partner, supportive family and friends, a stable enough life to support the hard work needed to make major behavioral changes. Because I have all these things going for me… and losing weight was still really freaking hard. And because I know that not every fat person who wants to lose weight has all these advantages, or even most of them, or even some of them. Because, even though I know that I worked hard to lose weight and can take pride in the accomplishment, I also know that I was lucky. Privileged, even.

I care about all this for a lot of reasons. Partly, I care because I get viscerally angry at the stupid, hateful, contemptuous bigotry that gets aimed at fat people. I was fat myself for many, many years; in many ways I still see myself as a fat person; and I get furious when I hear fat people called lazy and undisciplined and weak-willed, simply because they’re fat.

But I also care because I think obesity is a health problem — and I care about finding a solution.

This is what I always want to ask people who are ranting about how lazy and weak-willed fat people are, and how their fatness is entirely their own fault: How, exactly, do you think this is helping? How do you think this approach is likely to improve things? Trust me — it is not news to fat people that the world thinks of them as lazy, pathetic, weak-willed, helplessly compulsive failures. They’ve heard it before. And it isn’t helping. If anything, it makes things worse: depression and anxiety and low self- esteem can make weight management harder, and hearing at every turn that you’re a lazy, undisciplined failure doesn’t exactly help with depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem.

Of course personal choices are part of the equation. The reasons that weight loss is difficult and rare are legion, including economics and politics and biology and more, and all these reasons are intertwined… but personal behavior is part of that intertwined equation, too. And at the moment, until public policies and so on are changed, personal choices are what we have the most power over. I absolutely encourage anyone who cares about obesity as a health problem to get involved in reforming public policy about food and health. But until those policies are changed, if you want to take your body back from the people who are trying to sell you quadruple-patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick, you are, alas, ultimately going to have to do it yourself. (Hopefully with the support of your family and friends.)

Finger point
But pointing the finger at behavioral changes is still just begging the question. Yes, personal choice is part of the equation, and lots of people aren’t very good at changing their behavior. So why is that? Why is behavioral change of all kinds so difficult? Why is it so hard to get people to recycle, to use condoms, to not drink and drive? And why are some people better able to do it than others?

The science of behavior change is still something of a mystery. But there are some things we know about it. And some of what we know is that insulting people is not an effective technique. It’s much more effective to simply make the desired behavior easier. Getting recycling picked up at the curbside. Putting free condoms in bars where people cruise. Popularizing and supporting the concept of the designated driver.

And the same principles apply to weight management.

If you see fatness as a health problem, ask yourself this: Would it be a more effective solution, for a significantly larger number of people, to change our public policies and cultural strategies about food and health? Would it be more effective to change our policies about agricultural subsidies, city planning, food labeling, food and health education, food marketing to children, physical education in schools, etc.? Would it be more effective to have healthy choices about food and exercise be made easier and cheaper and more accessible, so more people are more likely to choose them?

Or would it be more effective to deride fat people as lazy, undisciplined, weak-willed slobs — more than our culture already does, I mean — in the hopes that they’ll be shamed into changing their habits?

Do you really think that’s going to make a difference?

Why Is It Hard To Lose Weight?

"No Strings Attached": Sexual Convention in Transgression's Clothes

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Is Hollywood exploring the frontiers of modern sexuality… or simply reinforcing the same old standards?

No strings attached
Well, it could have been worse.

I suppose.

You may have seen the saucy, sexy previews and ads for the super-hyped new movie, “No Strings Attached.” Paramount is clearly pushing this film, not as just another romantic comedy about women hunting for marriage and men succumbing to its sweet inevitability, but as a daring, edgy, ultra-modern exploration of the “new” relationship models: casual, non-romantic, commitment-free sexual friendships, in which both women and men go in with no expectation of a capital-R Relationship, and no desire for it.

It’s always interesting to see how mainstream media treats gender and sexuality. And as a sex writer with a focus on unconventional sexuality, I’m especially curious when it purports to be shattering myths and breaking new ground. My hopes weren’t high for this one — I’ve seen way too many Hollywood movies titillate themselves and their audiences with transgressive sexual possibilities and then firmly drag everyone back into safe conventionality. But I’ve been wrong before. I’ve gone into more than a few movies prepared to be bored and irritated, and come out surprised and delighted and raving to everyone I know.

Not this time.

No Strings Attached 3
Before I get into everything that’s stupid and annoying and just plain wrong with the sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” — and believe me, there’s a lot that’s wrong with these sexual politics — let’s get this out of the way: This is not a good movie. A romantic comedy (and I use both words with grave reservations) about long-term acquaintances who try to turn their friendship into one with benefits, “No Strings Attached” is fake, implausible, and entirely disconnected from human reality. It’s not even interested in being authentic, plausible, or connected to human reality. It’s interested in aggregating some cute moments and raunchy moments and heart-tugging moments and a bunch of juvenile sex jokes that would make a twelve-year-old cringe… and half-assedly stringing them onto a tediously predictable storyline that plays like it was written by a computer programmed by a committee who all read the same stupid screenwriters’ bible. The moment when Emma casually invites Adam to “this thing she’s doing,” and it turns out to be a family funeral… that was the moment I knew that this movie was aiming solely for cheap laughs, and was not remotely interested in any of the things human beings actually do. It’s a moment that takes place approximately ten minutes in.

And that, in fact, is a huge amount of what’s wrong with the movie’s sexual politics.

They’re fake.

No strings attached 2
I suppose I should summarize the plot here. But there really isn’t much to summarize. Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are long-time friends — acquaintances, really — who’ve always been a little interested in each other. They have an impulsive sexual tryst one day, and decide, for not- very- well- explained reasons, that instead of being lovers, they should be friends with benefits, with no romance and no commitment and no strings attached. Wacky hijinks ensue. Or, more accurately: Hijinks ensue that are intended to be wacky, but are, in fact, predictable to the point of tedium. Hijinks ensue, not because it would be natural for the characters to hijink in that manner, but because said hijinking is what the screenwriters think will be funny.

Which brings me back to the fakery. The sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” have nothing to do with the sexual things people actually do. They have nothing to do with how sexual relationships are changing: the ways that people are questioning assumptions about what sexual relationships have to look like, breaking down the standard categories and inventing new ones… and how these re-inventions from the fringe are filtering into the mainstream.

Quite the contrary.

“No Strings Attached” wants desperately to be all modern and cutting-edge and sexually transgressive, with gags about menstruation and tag lines like “Welcome to the new world of relationships.” But it consistently runs back to the safe ground of predictable formula and conventional sexual morality. It daringly asks the question, “Can two friends hook up without love getting in the way?” But then — spoiler alert, but if you didn’t figure this out you haven’t seen many Hollywood movies — it answers that question with a resounding, “No!” It flirts with the titillating edges of sexual exploration, but ultimately chides the explorers for being afraid of commitment, and settles everyone into cozy, coupled, “happily ever after” conventionality. If your first reaction to seeing this movie’s ad campaign was a roll of your eyes and a jaded sigh of, “I know exactly how this movie unfolds and where it ends up”… you’re right. That’s how it unfolds, and that’s where it ends up.

Where to begin, where to begin? Well, the first problem is with Emma’s motivation for resisting romantic love.

There isn’t any.

No strings attached 4
Emma’s reasons for not wanting to get into a capital-R Relationship are pathetic. They’re like a first draft that never get hammered out in the rewrites. The reason she gives Adam is that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time. The real explanation, though, the one she tells her friend, is that she’s afraid of getting her heart broken. Note, please, that she’s not gun-shy for any particular reason, a bad breakup or anything. She’s just scared. Because the screenplay demands it. Because if she isn’t, then she and Ashton Kutcher will happily fall in love in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the movie will consist of stock footage and light music.

But this lack of plausible motivation doesn’t just make the movie baffling and pointless. It trivializes the entire premise. It frames the very idea of sexual friendship — of pursuing sexual relationships that aren’t romantic and aren’t going to be — as ridiculous on the face of it. Doomed to fail at best; emotionally cowardly at worst.

As a longtime sex writer and educator, I find this irritating because it trivializes a fringe sexuality. It makes people who are engaging in it feel alienated and shamed; it makes people who are considering it give up before they even begin. As an off-and-on participant in these sexual friendships over the years, and as part of a community that often enjoys these kinds of friendships, I find it irritating because… well, for the same reason, basically. Because me and my friends are the ones being trivialized and shamed and marginalized. And as a moviegoer, I find it irritating because it makes me feel like a dupe. If even the writers couldn’t be bothered to take the premise seriously, why on earth should I waste my time and money it?

It’s not like a plausible motivation wasn’t possible. In fact, when my friend Rebecca and I saw this movie and then enthusiastically dissected everything that was wrong with it, we came up with an alternate plot that might have actually worked — and in particular, a motivation for Emma’s romantic reluctance that might actually make sense. In our version, Emma and Adam meet, hook up, feel sparks… but while he’s interested in pursuing something more, she has genuine good reasons for not wanting it to get serious. The fake reason she gives to Adam, that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time for a romance? That would do nicely. That’s a genuine conflict, not a stupid fake movie one — wanting love, but also wanting a medical career, and not knowing how to juggle the competing demands on time and energy and commitment. In fact, in Rebecca’s version, Emma’s actually had several friendships with benefits before this one, which mostly worked out neatly and well — and so the romantic sparks she starts to feel with Adam take her by surprise, and she has to not only figure out what’s going on with her emotions, but make real choices about where to go with them.

That’s a movie we would have happily seen. It would have treated sexual friendship as a valid option, a workable alternative that reasonable people might get real value from. And it wouldn’t have had to be some heavy relationship drama. It could easily have fit into a light, goofy, romantic comedy format.

But that movie would have taken, you know, work. Attention to coherence and plausibility. Maybe even some research into what people with fuckbuddies actually do with them. (Other than the obvious, of course.) And it would have taken a willingness to question the dominant relationship paradigm… instead of pretending to question it, but having the stock answer in it pocket all along.

So there’s that.

But there’s more.

There is, in fact, the foundational premise of the movie: the assumption that sex inevitably leads to love.

No strings attached 1
This premise gets treated like a law of Newtonian mechanics. You have ongoing sex with someone you like — it turns into romantic love, with the inevitability of planetary orbits collapsing. There’s no point in fending it off. It’s ridiculous to even try. Entertaining to watch (well, in theory, anyway) — but ridiculous.

Okay. Here’s the bit where I get all TMI on you, and inappropriately disclose details about my sexual history. I promise, it really is relevant.

I’ve had sex with a fair number of people in my day. I can’t be exact about that fair number, since I stopped keeping track a long, long time ago. But it’s somewhere in the high two figures. Possibly the low three, depending on how you define “having sex.”

And of those roughly 80-120 people that I’ve had sex with, I’ve fallen in love with exactly three. David. Richard. And — most importantly, by several orders of magnitude — the great love of my life, my partner of thirteen years and my wife of seven, Ingrid.

Now, to be fair, many of those roughly 80-120 encounterees were very short-term indeed, with no time for love to blossom. Brief flings, one-night stands, people I met at sex parties whose names I never knew. But some of them were ongoing relationships — that’s small “r” relationships — of some duration. Some were friendships that became sexual; some have been sexual trysts that became friendships. Some of those friendships were fairly easy-going; some have been among the most central friendships of my life. Some have had sex as a central defining component; some were sexual only tangentially, or intermittently. Some of these people I’m still friends with; some aren’t — not because sexual friendships can never work, but for the same reasons that any friendship can sometimes drift apart.

And of all of these people, I fell in love with three.

Three, out of 80-120.

That’s some really crappy Newtonian mechanics you got there.

And I’m not the only one. I move in a community where sexual friendships are fairly common, and I know a whole lot of people who have them, or who’ve had them in the past. Some of these friendships have worked out; some haven’t. Sometimes they’ve lasted in more or less the same form for a while; sometimes they’ve changed over time. Occasionally they’ve led to romantic love; usually they haven’t. A lot like, you know, non-sexual friendships, or work partnerships, or school chums, or every other kind of human relationship on the face of the planet.

That’s the reality.

But it’s a reality that the writers of “No Strings Attached” seem entirely uninterested in.

Yes, I know. It’s silly escapist entertainment. And that’s fine. Not every movie about love and sex has to be a blazing insight into the deepest realities of the human heart. But even silly escapist entertainment is better — funnier, more engaging, more actually entertaining — when it has a whiff of plausibility. Escapist entertainment works better when you’re not scratching your head trying to figure out why on earth the characters are doing what they’re doing… or playing a silent game of “Predict the Movie Cliche” to pass the time until the sweet, sweet credits finally roll.

No_strings_attached 5
There are a handful of likeable things about “No Strings Attached.” I actually sort of loved the bit about the menstrual-themed mix CD. The running gag about silly covers of raunchy pop songs — the mariachi band playing “Don’t Cha,” the country-Western version of “99 Problems” — is pretty freaking funny. (The latter, in fact, was weirdly awesome, and I may even wind up downloading it.) Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is dry and smart and hilariously understated, and I definitely want to see him do more acting. And the idyllic sexual montage of Emma and Adam’s early hookups is both genuinely hot and genuinely sweet. It was one of the few stretches of the film where I felt that the characters were, you know, real people, with real chemistry, taking genuine pleasure in one another’s bodies and one another’s company, experiencing emotions that were honest and joyful and subject to change without notice. It was one of the few stretches of the film when I felt like there was a real movie in there, itching to come out. (Maybe the one Rebecca and I came up with.)

So yes, it definitely could have been worse. There could have been fart jokes. There could have been vomit jokes. There could have been overturned fruit carts, wacky cases of mistaken identity, people falling into wedding cakes. The sexual libertines could have died tragically at the end, of disease or violence, the last words on their bloody and tormented lips, “I know that our life of sin has led us to this sorry fate.” It could have starred Adam Sandler.

It could have been worse.

But not by much.

No Strings Attached. Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, and Kevin Kline. Produced and directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether. Paramount. Rated R. Opens Jan. 21.

ADDENDUM: There is so much more that I could have said about this movie if I’d had space. I could have talked about the flagrant fakiness of the “TV production assistant/ aspiring writer gets his script into production in six weeks” storyline. I could have talked about the approximately 43,547 supporting characters in the form of the main characters’ supposedly colorful friends and family, all of whom were essentially interchangeable and who I kept getting mixed up. I could have ranted about how, in giving Emma no sane motivation for resisting a capital-R Relationship, the movie not only trivializes sexual friendships, but slut-shames women who want sexual adventure. (Fortunately, David Edelstein covered that angle.) I could have written an entire other piece lambasting the idea that friendship — sexual or otherwise — isn’t an important connection that requires work and commitment, and doesn’t count as a “string.” And, on the plus side, I could have mentioned the lovely moment in the blissful erotic montage, when it’s strongly implied that Emma fucks Adam up the ass. Ah, well, You can’t say everything.

"No Strings Attached": Sexual Convention in Transgression's Clothes

How Often Should You Ask For Something? Parts 1 and 2

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here — not for any particular reason, mostly just because I lost interest in the topic after the piece was initially published. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

If you’ve asked for something sexual, and your partner has said “No” — or “No, not now, maybe some other time” — is it okay to ask again?

And if so… how often?

I was inspired to write this by a letter to Scarleteen, the sex advice Website for (primarily) teens and young adults. A 17-year-old girl has a boyfriend who wants to finger her — and he keeps asking for it. He says that he respects her right to say “No”… but he keeps bringing it up. Over and over again. Like, every time they do sexual stuff. She’s made it clear that she won’t be ready for that for a while; she’s told him, “Wait ’till I’m in college and we’ll see.” To which he says “Okay”… and then brings it up again the next time.

Scarleteen’s advice, in a very short oversimplified summary: “Asking for a particular sexual thing every time you have sex is not okay. It’s pressure, and it doesn’t count as taking ‘No’ for an answer.” And in my opinion, this advice is totally sound. Especially for this particular situation. No matter what broad general guiding principle we might come up with for “How often is it okay to ask again for something when your partner has said ‘No’?”, surely “Every single freaking time you have sex” has got to be an unacceptable answer. And when you’re talking to an audience of largely teenaged girls — many of whom have yet to develop strong No-saying skills — that goes double.

But while this one situation does seem to have a clear answer, it does raise some interesting broader questions. So again I ask: If you’ve asked for something sexual, and your partner has said “No” — or “No, not now, maybe some other time” — is it okay to ask again?

And if so… how often?

See, while I strongly agree with Scarleteen’s advice on this particular situation, there was one broader principle they raised about relationships in general that I took issue with:

Ideally, the way a partner should respond to a no is by completely accepting a no.

If they knew it was something they really wanted, and it was only about you not wanting it, they could also respectfully say, “I respect that and want to respect that, but I am interested myself, so if you change your mind, could you just let me know?” In other words, he can voice his wants, but since you have said no, he needs to leave the ball (as it were) in your court, without revisiting the subject unless you put it on the table. After all, you’re both aware of what he wants, obviously: it’s not like he was unclear, either. (Emphasis mine.)

Hm. Once you’ve asked for something, and your partner has said “No” — the ball is then in their court? Forever? You can’t bring it up ever again? Not just this jackass boyfriend with this 17-year-old girl in particular… but anyone, in any sexual relationship?

If that’s what they’re saying… then I have a problem with that.

Here’s the dilemma. Obviously, No means No. That’s a cornerstone of sexual ethics. I hope I don’t have to explain why. When someone says, “No, I don’t want to do that,” you take No for an answer. Period. You don’t force them; you don’t guilt-trip them; you don’t pressure them. You’re entitled to your desires, and you’re entitled to get out of relationships with people whose desires don’t mesh with yours — but you’re not entitled to have any kind of sex you want, with any partner you’re with. No means No. I’m not going to debate that.

But here’s where it gets tricky.

There’s been more than one time in my sexual life when I’ve asked for something that my partner has said “No” to — and I’ve asked again, weeks or months or years later, and they’ve then said “Yes.”

It’s worked the other way around as well. I’ve said “No” to things that I then changed my mind about, and I’ve said “Yes” when my partner asked again.

And a good number of those times have resulted in some amazing sex — sex that both of us (or all of us) enjoyed tremendously, and would not have missed for the world.

But here’s the thing. The person who asked for something? The person who asked to be spanked, or to have their toes sucked, or to dress up like cowboys? They’re the one who’s more likely to be thinking about it. They’re the one who cares about it. If they’re the one who initiated it in the first place, they’re a lot more likely to initiate it again.

The person who said “No”? It may not occur to them to bring it up. They’re probably not the one who wants it or cares about it. If their partner never mentions it again, they might not even remember it.

So it doesn’t really make sense to insist that the person who said “No” is the one who’s responsible for putting it back on the table.

Example. If my partner asks me, “Can I apply hot peppers to your nether regions?” and I say “No, I don’t want to try that,” it’s probably not going to occur to me to bring it up again. Not because I’m traumatized by the very idea… but because it simply won’t be on my radar. Even if hot peppers aren’t an absolutely firm No for me — even if they’re something I’d be willing to try if my fears and reservations about it were allayed — once I’ve said “No,” for me the matter is going to be pretty much closed.

But that doesn’t make my partner a bad person for opening it up again.

At many points during my sex life, assorted partners have asked me, “Do you want to do X?”… even though I’d already said “No.” And I’m glad they did. If those partners hadn’t asked me, “Can we have anal sex? Can I cane you? Can we have regular vanilla sex without any kink or dominance play?” — despite my having said once upon a time, “No, I’m not interested in that” — my sex life would have been the poorer.

People change. A “No” today can turn into a “Yes” next week, or next month, or next year. In fact, sometimes the mere fact of having a sexual activity proposed, and having some time to think about it, can be enough to change a firm “No” to a softer “Let’s talk about this some more.” Sometimes all it takes to change our minds about a sex act is having it proposed by a caring partner who’s clearly not a maniac, and giving it some time and space to feel familiar and safe.

People change. People’s desires can change; people’s willingness to try things they think they’re not interested in (or that they’ve tried before and didn’t like) can change. And part of respecting our partners, and valuing our relationships with them, involves recognizing that people and relationships change — and being brave enough to revisit delicate questions, instead of letting things settle into inflexible cement where all questions are assumed to be resolved forever.

I’ve argued passionately that asking for what we want is part of being good, giving, and game: that one of the most important things we can give our partners is our willingness to be honest and vulnerable and brave about our desires. I don’t think I can say that… and then say, “But you can only do it once. Once you’ve asked, you have to put it back in the box, and never bring it out ever again.”

Of course it’s vitally important to respect people’s right to say “No.” But it’s also important to respect people’s right to ask for what they want. In fact, I’d argue that both these principles come from the same place — the basic respect for sexual autonomy.

There is, of course, a point at which “asking” becomes “pressure.” And I think it’s well worth having a conversation about where that line gets crossed. Especially since that line is going to be different in different situations, and for different people. To give just one obvious example: If your partner is young, and/or sexually inexperienced? That line should almost certainly be drawn in a much more careful, more conservative place than it would be with an older partner who’s had more sex. (Another reason why I think Scarleteen’s advice, while somewhat off-base as a general principle, is totally appropriate for this particular situation described in this particular letter.)

But I don’t think it makes sense to say, as Scarleteen suggests, that the ball should always be in the court of the person who said “No.” I don’t think it makes sense that the person who said “No” should always be the one to raise the question again.

Because chances are, they’re not going to.


So what does make sense?

How do we value the right to say “No” to any kind of sex we don’t want to engage in — while still valuing the right to ask for what we want? How do we draw the line between asking and pressuring? If we agree that “asking over and over again every single time you have sex” is a really crummy place to draw that line — but we also agree that “asking once and then never bringing it up again for the entire duration of the relationship” is almost as bad — then where do we draw it?

That’s the next column.


How Often Should You Ask For Something? Part 2: The Specifics

Draw the line
When it comes to asking for what we want in bed, how do we draw the line between asking and pressuring?

In my previous column, I wrote about a letter to Scarleteen, the sex advice Website for (primarily) teens and young adults. In this letter, a 17-year-old girl complained about her boyfriend who said he respected her sexual limits, but then kept asking for the same thing… over and over and over again. Scarleteen suggested that, since the boyfriend had made his desires clear, the ball was now in her court: his continued requests had crossed the line into pressuring, and he should bloody well knock it off.

Now, like I said last week, when it comes to the particular circumstances of this particular letter, this principle is very clear-cut. No matter what you might decide about the nuances and gray areas of “asking versus pressuring,” surely “asking for the same damn thing every single time you have sex with someone when they’ve clearly said ‘I’m not ready for this now and won’t be until at least (X)'” lands squarely on the “pressuring” end of that spectrum. Scarleteen’s advice on that front was entirely solid. If anything, I’d argue that they cut this guy too much slack. Personally, I’d be less inclined to advise his girlfriend to have a serious heart-to-heart about why he keeps bringing this up when she’s made her limits very clear… and more inclined to advise her, as Dan Savage so often does, to dump the motherfucker already.

Tennis ball
But like I also said last week: I don’t think it’s fair that the ball should always and forevermore be in the court of the person who said “No.” I don’t think it makes sense that the person who said “No” to a particular kind of sex should always be the one to raise the question again. If “asking for something over and over again every single time you have sex” is a lousy place to draw the line between “asking” and “pressuring,” I think “asking once and then never bringing it up again for the entire duration of the relationship” is a pretty bad place to draw it as well.

So where should we draw it?

How do we value the right to say “No” to any kind of sex we don’t want to engage in — while still valuing the right to ask for what we want?

How — specifically, practically — can we make this distinction?

I don’t want to play the Seinfeld game of coming up with hard numbers for broad relationship principles. (“If you’ve dated someone for three weeks, you can’t break up with them over the phone,” and so on.). But I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve been coming up with a few very provisional guiding principles. (This is a rough draft, by the way, very much one of my “thinking out loud” pieces — so if you have problems with these principles, or can think of some I didn’t mention, please speak up in the comments!)

Power of persistence
1) Asking every single freaking time you have sex is right out. That’s the situation that sparked this whole conversation — so I want to get it out of the way right now. Again, I don’t want to get into a lot of strict Seinfeldian rules here… but I feel fairly comfortable with this one. If you want something so badly that you feel compelled to ask for it every single time you have sex with someone, maybe you ought to find a partner who actually wants to do that with you.

2) If your partner gives you a timetable for revisiting the question — respect it. If they say “No,” you can ask again now and then. But if they say “Not until I’m in college” or “Not until my divorce is final,” do not freaking well bring it up again until they’re in college or their divorce is final. (If that timetable isn’t okay with you, you’re entitled to get out of the relationship… but you’re not entitled to do it in a way that’s guilt-trippy or manipulative or otherwise douchey.)

3) Be more cautious and conservative when asking for something again with partners who are younger, and/or less sexually experienced. As a general rule, people who are younger and/or less sexually experienced often have a harder time saying “No.” (And alas, that’s often more true for young women than young men.) Learning that it’s okay to say “No” when your lover asks for something sexual takes a level of confidence that many young people, especially young women, haven’t learned yet. And there’s a big difference between people who’ve done lots of sexual exploration, people who’ve had time to map out both the broad and specific outlines of how they do and don’t like to boff… and people who are just mapping this stuff out for the first time. Taking those first baby steps can be daunting. It’s definitely not okay to nag people into taking any particular step before they’re ready.

Now, there is another factor making this principle somewhat tricky. And that’s that younger and/or less sexually experienced people aren’t just less likely to have the confidence to say “No.” They’re also less likely to have the confidence to initiate things, and to ask for things they’d like. Including things their partners have already brought up.

Example: When I was 17, I had a sex partner — a really great, fun, imaginative sex partner — who asked me if I wanted to be spanked. I said “No”: not because I didn’t want to, I desperately did, I’d been thinking about getting spanked for as long as I’d been thinking about sex… but because I was afraid of what wanting to get spanked would mean about me. But the moment I said “No,” I regretted it. I regretted it for the rest of that night; for every time we had sex after that; for years after this guy was out of my life. I was way too shy to bring it up with him again… and way too scared of having him think I was a pervert. But I would have been much obliged if he’d asked again. Probably not that night, but sometime.

When it comes to putting a sexual proposition back on the table, I do think it’s good to be more cautious and conservative with younger or less-experienced partners. And that’s true whether you’re older and more experienced, or a younger, less-experienced person yourself. But if it’s done in a way that isn’t noodging or guilt-tripping or otherwise obnoxious (more on that in a second), asking for something again doesn’t have to be pressure. It can be an invitation: an invitation to something your partner might want but doesn’t feel comfortable asking for.

4) When you ask for something again, make it explicitly clear that “No” is still an acceptable answer. There is a huge difference between, “So, can I spank you? Huh? Huh? I know you said ‘No’ before… but can I? Pleeeeeeeze? Oh, come on. Don’t be a wuss. All the cool kids are doing it. If you really loved me you’d do it”… and, “I know you said you didn’t want to be spanked, and if you still don’t that’s totally fine… but I’m still interested, and I just want to check in to see if your thoughts on that had changed.”

5) Talk about it when you’re not having sex. This is a good general principle of sexual negotiations… and it applies just as well to re-negotiations.

When people are in the middle of having sex, our thinking isn’t always at its clearest. To say the least. We’re vulnerable; we’re sensitive; we’re excited and horny. (Ideally, anyway.) Our judgment about whether we genuinely want to do something can be impaired. So if you’re going to bring up the “Have you changed your mind about (X)?” conversation, it’s much better to have it when you’re not already in the throes of passion.

6) Find out how firm the “No” is. Is this a traumatic emotional trigger? A profoundly nauseating gross-out? Or is it just a mild squick, something that might dissipate with time and information and familiarity? As I’ve written before: Is this broccoli or tofu?

If I’ve told a partner, “Eh, I’m really not into that,” it’s probably not going to bug me if they ask me about it again a month later. But if I’ve said, “Fuck no, not if it paid me a billion dollars and brought about peace in the Middle East” — it’s definitely going to bug me if they keep bringing it up. That doesn’t mean they should never ever mention it — I’ve had hard Nos turn into Maybes and even Hell Yes Please Oh Pleases in my life — but it does mean I don’t want to hear about it every month.

7) Start by asking if there’s something your partner wants. The “Have you changed your mind about (X)?” conversation is likely to go better if you don’t make that the opener. Things are likely to go better if the conversation starts with, “Is there anything you’d like to do sexually that we’re not doing?” This makes it clear that you care about your partner’s desires. It sets up your re-negotiations, not as a nagging demand, but as part of an ongoing conversation about sex, a two-way street intended to get everyone where they want to go. It’s considerate and thoughtful. (And from a purely selfish, Machiavellian standpoint, it’s good strategy.)

8) Tit for tat. And speaking of good strategy: If you’re asking your partner for something they’ve said “No” to? A good approach can be to let them do it to you first. If you want to spank them, to tie them up, to fuck them in the ass, and they’re not interested — offer to take it before you give it.

This doesn’t work in all situations or for all sex acts, obviously. “I’ll let you fuck me in the bathroom of Madison Square Garden if you’ll let me do the same with you” is clearly not a fair trade. But for some kinds of sex — sex where there’s some inherent inequality or imbalance, for instance — this can be a way to allay people’s fears, and make it seem safe.

9) When someone says “No,” it’s okay to ask “Why?”

We have to be very, very careful with this one. That “Why?” can’t be guilt-trippy. It can’t carry any implications that there’s something bad or wrong about saying “No” to a particular kind of sex. Not even a little.

But sometimes, when people say “No” to a certain kind of sex, it’s because they have misconceptions about it. (I said “No” to anal sex for years because I was under the misconception that it always hurt.) And sometimes, even when people have entirely valid, non-misconception-y reservations about a particular kind of sex… those reservations can sometimes be addressed. (“We’ll go slow, and we’ll use lots of lube, and we’ll slow down or stop if it starts to hurt” leaps to mind.)

Again, we have to be seriously careful with this. There’s a difference between saying, “Why are you such an unloving, uptight prude that you don’t you want to give me this thing I want so much?”, and saying, “I accept your No and will respect it — but I’d like to know where that No is coming from, since some people have misconceptions about X, and there might be some way we could do it that would address your concerns about it.”

But if it’s done in a non-judgmental way, asking “What are your reasons for not wanting this?” can be a good start to settling sexual differences and arriving at compromises that everyone’s happy with. And it can lead to better overall understanding of each other’s erotic maps… and to good conversations about other things you might or might not want to do.

Nobody is required to give an answer to the question, “Why don’t you want to do that?” The answer, “Oh, I don’t know, I just don’t feel like it” is perfectly valid. But it’s a valid and reasonable question to ask. And I think it’s valid and reasonable to ask your partner to at least think about the answer.


That’s my rough draft.

Wanna help me fine-tune it?

How Often Should You Ask For Something? Parts 1 and 2

Why Is It So Hard To Lose Weight?

Most fat people who try to lose weight aren’t successful. Does it make more sense to blame fat people for lacking self- control… or to change public policy about food and health?

You’ve almost certainly heard the chorus of offensive myths and falsehoods about overweight people. Every time I write about weight management and food politics, it’s guaranteed that someone will start railing about how fat people are fat because of their own laziness, poor self-control, lack of discipline, etc. And it’s all over popular culture. According to these folks, trying to address obesity as a public health issue, by changing public policy about agriculture subsidies and food labeling and school lunch programs and city planning and so on… it’s a waste of time. Worse than a waste of time, even: it’s the nanny state run amok, coddling people who won’t take care of themselves, treating people as if they had no personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

There’s just one little problem with this notion: There’s no good reason to think it’s true.


Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet, Why Is It So Hard To Lose Weight? To find out how money, public policy, corporate greed, and evolutionary hard-wiring have a far greater effect on making weight loss difficult than laziness or lack of self-control, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why Is It So Hard To Lose Weight?

Greta's Speaking Tour, Iowa and Ohio, Feb. 7-12

UPDATE: The exact location of the OSU talk on 2/10 has been announced. It’ll be at Hitchcock Hall 131.

Greetings from ohio
If you’re in Iowa or Ohio — specifically around Cedar Falls in Iowa, or Dayton, Oxford, or Columbus in Ohio — come hear me speak! I’m going to be doing a speaking tour, February 7-12, at various university campuses and humanist/ atheist/ secular groups in Iowa and Ohio. My stops will be at University of Northern Iowa, Wright State University, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio State University, and the Humanist Community of Central Ohio.

I’ll be speaking on the topics of “Atheism and Sexuality” and “Diversity in the Atheist Movement.” (Yeah, I know — the college groups always want the sex talk. What do you expect?) Here are summaries of the talks:

Atheism and sexuality. The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?

Diversity in the atheist movement. The most visible representatives of the atheist movement tend to be white men. Is this a problem? If so, should the atheist movement be doing something about it — and if so, what?

I’ll be doing Q&A at every talk, so come prepared to grill me, ask me that question you’ve always wanted to ask, or just say howdy. The tour is being sponsored by the amazing Secular Student Alliance. Here are the details:


LOCATION: University of Northern Iowa, Center for Multicultural Education, Maucker Union, Cedar Falls, IA
TIME: 7:00-8:00 PM
EVENT: Darwin Week
SPONSOR: University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI)
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Freethought WSU
LOCATION: Wright State University, Oelman Hall, Room 112, Dayton, OH
TIME: 6:00-8:00 pm
SPONSOR: Freethought WSU
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Miami university
LOCATION: Miami University, 116 Pearson Hall, Oxford, OH
TIME: 7:30-9:00 pm
SPONSORS: Secular Students of Miami, Spectrum, and Pro-Choice Miami
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Ohio state
LOCATION: Ohio State University, Hitchcock Hall 131, Columbus, OH
TIME: 7:30-9:00 pm
SPONSOR: Students for Freethought at Ohio State University
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

LOCATION: Columbus, OH, Northwood High Building, 2231 N. High St., Room 100
(just north of OSU’s main campus; there is ample free parking in the back of the building)
TIME: 1:00 – 3:00 pm
SPONSOR: Humanist Community of Central Ohio
TOPIC: Diversity in the Atheist Movement

Hope to see you there!

Greta's Speaking Tour, Iowa and Ohio, Feb. 7-12

Natalie Portman's 'No Strings Attached' Sex: Is Hollywood Finally Ditching Its Repressive Attitude?

You may have seen the saucy, sexy previews and ads for the super-hyped new movie, “No Strings Attached.” Paramount is clearly pushing this film, not as just another romantic comedy about women hunting for marriage and men succumbing to its sweet inevitability, but as a daring, edgy, ultra-modern exploration of the “new” relationship models: casual, non-romantic, commitment-free sexual friendships, in which both women and men go in with no expectation of a capital-R Relationship, and no desire for it.

It’s always interesting to see how mainstream media treats gender and sexuality. And as a sex writer with a focus on unconventional sexuality, I’m especially curious when it purports to be shattering myths and breaking new ground. My hopes weren’t high for this one — I’ve seen way too many Hollywood movies titillate themselves and their audiences with transgressive sexual possibilities and then firmly drag everyone back into safe conventionality. But I’ve been wrong before. I’ve gone into more than a few movies prepared to be bored and irritated, and come out surprised and delighted and raving to everyone I know.

Not this time.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Natalie Portman’s ‘No Strings Attached’ Sex: Is Hollywood Finally Ditching Its Repressive Attitude? To find out more about the new movie “No Strings Attached” and its take on friendships with benefits, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Natalie Portman's 'No Strings Attached' Sex: Is Hollywood Finally Ditching Its Repressive Attitude?

Sex Addiction or Sexual Compulsion?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I wasn’t planning to reprint it here, since after it came out some errors in it were called to my attention (specifically on the neuroscience of addiction). But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, even the ones I no longer totally support or that are no longer relevant, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Sad silhouette
Let’s start with something we can all agree on. Some people have a hard time controlling their sexual behavior. Some people have sex in ways that damage themselves, and damage others… and they keep doing it anyway. Some people pursue sex — specific sexual activities, or just any kind of sexual pleasure generally — in ways that seriously interfere with their lives: ways that screw up their relationships, or create financial hardship, or even injure their health. And despite this harm, despite the fact that their behavior is making them unhappy, they don’t seem to be able to control themselves, and they keep doing it anyway.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

Does this mean these people are “sex addicts”?

My immediate answer is No.

And my non-immediate answer, my answer after long and careful consideration, is also No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Abso-fucking-lutely not.

The right word for this behavior is “compulsive.” Or “obsessive.” Or “fixated.” Or “self-destructive.” Or “harmful.”


Why am I so passionately opposed to the very concept of “sex addiction”?

Why am I being such a stickler about this language?

Cocaine fiends
Part of my problem is that the word “addiction” has a particular pharmacological meaning. It’s a specific relationship to a particular set of drugs, such as heroin or cocaine or alcohol: needing higher doses to get the same effect, withdrawal symptoms when the drug use stops, etc. It’s a fairly specific concept. And it’s a different concept from compulsive behavior, or self-destructive behavior, or having a hard time stopping a certain behavior. To say that people are “addicted” when they’re being compulsive about exercise, or working, or collecting things — or sex — is just not accurate.

But I’m not usually this much of a stickler about definitions. Quite the opposite. In fact, regular readers may be getting very confused at this point: I’m usually an ardent usagist when it comes to language, a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and I’ve defended this non-stickler position with great passion and waving about of hands. I think words mean what they’re generally understood to mean by most of the people using the language, and I think it’s nonsensical to complain that a word “really” means X when most people speaking and hearing it think it means Y. I understand that the meanings of words change over time. And I’m generally fine when words with specific, technical meanings acquire different meanings in casual, colloquial conversation.

So why am I being a stickler about this one?

Why do I get my panties in a twist about the phrase “sex addiction”?

Partly it’s because, although I am usually a happy- go- lucky usagist when word meanings change, I’m more of a stickler when a word’s original meaning is useful — and there isn’t another word to replace it. (I object to the word “literally” being used as an intensifier, for instance, not because “that’s not what the word really means,” but because we don’t have another word to express the concept that “literally” used to express.)

And this is definitely true about the word “addiction.” The concept of “a specific pharmacological relationship to certain drugs, characterized by withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses, etc.” is a useful one. It’s a very different concept from “any sort of obsessive or compulsive behavior that people have difficulty stopping.” And while these two concepts are obviously related, the distinction between them is worth preserving.

But in the case of the word “addiction” — and especially in the case of “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” — there’s another reason I’m being a stickler. And it’s a far more important one.

The word “addiction” has, I think, certain implications. They’re implications inherent in the original technical definition of the word, and they carry over into the colloquial, casual, non-technical use.

And they’re implications I think are grossly inaccurate, wildly misleading, and seriously harmful when they get applied to sex.

The word “addiction” refers to a specific kind of relationship: not just with drugs, but with specific drugs. Some drugs are addictive — others are not. Heroin and cocaine and alcohol, for instance, are addictive: marijuana is not. People can certainly form unhealthy relationships with weed — but those unhealthy relationships don’t include withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses to get the same effect, etc. People can and do get those symptoms with heroin and cocaine and alcohol. That’s what addiction means.

So as a result, we tend to see addiction as being a problem that’s rooted in the substance itself. We tend to see addiction as a problem, not with the quirks of the human brain, not with the way certain human brains deal with certain drugs, but with the drugs. We’re obviously not very consistent about this — we happily demonize heroin and cocaine, while we have a much more accepting attitude towards alcohol — but we still tend to see the harmful potential of addictive drugs as somehow inherent in the drugs themselves. Maybe we shouldn’t — okay, we definitely shouldn’t — but we do. And while this isn’t the most useful attitude towards drugs humanity has ever come up with, there is a grain of truth to it. Our relationships with addictive drugs are different from our relationships with non-addictive drugs. Or they often are. I certainly don’t think it makes sense to demonize addictive drugs… but I do think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that they often have a different effect on us, and to set them apart in some ways.

But this is a very, very bad approach to take when we’re talking about sex.

Sex fiend pulp
And it’s an approach that feeds into our culture’s existing demonization of sex. The concept of “sex addiction” treats sex as an experience that is inherently harmful: an experience that has financial disaster and screwed-up relationships and ruined health somehow inherent in the experience itself.

When we’re talking about people having a hard time controlling their sexual behavior, “compulsive” or “obsessive” are much better words. Because when we talk about compulsive or obsessive behavior, we understand that the problem doesn’t lie in the specific thing being obsessed about. We understand that people can get compulsive about anything: work, exercise, eating, falling in love, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. In fact, we understand that people tend to get compulsive about positive, pleasurable experiences, experiences that are central to human existence. We don’t blame work or exercise, food or love, for the fact that some people get compulsive about them.

And sex should be in that category. It’s not a substance, like heroin or alcohol, that people can form pharmacological dependencies on. It’s a fundamental human behavior, like eating or working or falling in love: a behavior that, tragically but understandably, some people get destructively compulsive about.

But when we talk about “sex addiction” — as opposed to “sexual compulsion” — it places the blame on sex itself. It treats sex, not as a positive and necessary part of human life that can sometimes go wrong, but as a dangerous and harmful substance: best avoided entirely if at all possible, to be treated like a minefield if you absolutely have to engage with it.

And that’s both denigrating to sex, and flat-out mistaken.

I would never deny that sex can be harmful. Anything can be harmful. And I think it’s quite possible that sex has more potential to cause harm than many other human behaviors. Sex is a powerful drive, an irrational, deeply ingrained, lizard-hindbrain urge: it has hundreds of millions of years of evolution powering it, and our fears and desires and feelings about it run deep and hard. We’re not going to be as smart or as self-controlled about it as we are about, say, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. Strong drives have more potential to go wrong, and to go wrong more badly. That’s true of hunger, and fear, and pleasure, and competition, and family loyalty, and love: these experiences are powerful — which means they have more power to screw us up.

But these experiences are also our most fundamental ones. They have the power to harm us, of course — but they also have the power to give us joy, to inspire us towards greatness, to take us out of ourselves, to connect us with our future, to keep us alive, to engage us with the world.

We’re not going to cope with the problems they create by treating them like poison… as if evil and destruction were woven into their very core.

Sex Addiction or Sexual Compulsion?

How This Weight-Loss Skeptic Lost 60 Pounds and Kept it Off

Scale 1
AlterNet has just published a revised, updated version of my “here’s how I’m doing it” piece on weight management, “The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet,” which they’ve re-titled How This Weight-Loss Skeptic Lost 60 Pounds and Kept it Off. Here’s how it begins:

How, exactly, do you lose weight while maintaining progressive ideals about body image?

In the last year and a half, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve done a fair amount of writing about it, here on AlterNet and on my own blog: about the politics and cultural issues of weight loss, the psychological and sexual and weird emotional stuff connected with it, my changing and conflicted thoughts about the fat- acceptance movement and its ideals of accepting our bodies the way they are.

But I know that when people talk about weight loss, all that political and cultural crap is, for most people, only of moderate interest. When you’ve lost weight, what most people want to know is, “How did you do it?”

So here, for anyone who’s interested in losing weight or maintaining weight loss, are the nuts-and-bolts details: the specific “how-to” of my so-far successful effort to lose weight and maintain weight loss in an evidence- based manner, while retaining my feminist ideals and my resistance to body fascism. (And for anyone who’s not interested in losing weight — that’s totally cool. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss for everyone. The cost/ benefit analysis of weight loss is different for everyone, and I completely support fat people who are genuinely happy with their bodies and aren’t interested in losing weight. I just also happen to support fat people who do want to lose weight, and who want to do it in a healthy and sustainable way. Our bodies, our right to decide.)

I’ll tell you right now: This isn’t a diet in any traditional sense. I’m not going to tell you that I eat twelve meals a day every two hours, or that I limit myself to six servings of pork a week, or that I only eat plankton and spelt and a vodka martini on the full moon. What I’m going to talk about is practical strategies that have helped me lose weight… and emotional/ psychological strategies that have helped me stay on track with the practical strategies.

I should spell out very clearly before I begin: I’m not an expert. I’m not a physiologist or a nutritionist or a researcher on weight loss. I’m a lay person who’s staying on top of the research as best I can, and who’s found some things that are working for me. Some of it may work for you. Take what you need; leave the rest; pay attention to the current research; talk with other people about what works for them.

To read the revised and updated details of my weight loss and weight management plan, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

How This Weight-Loss Skeptic Lost 60 Pounds and Kept it Off

Can Atheists Do Anything Right?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Atheists get labeled as offensive and bitter… when we express anger, and when we express hope and morality and meaning. Why is it important for believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

No win situation
Is there anything atheists can say about our atheism — or even just about our lives — that won’t make people look at us with revulsion?

Two recent stories in the news/ blogs/ opinionosphere have made me vividly aware — not for the first time — of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of non-believers in our culture. In one piece, atheists were called out for being negative and confrontational, and readers were informed that we’re angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death. In the other piece, non-believers were called out for sharing the positive, joyful aspects of our lives and the ways we find meaning and hope even in the face of death… and for failing to mention God when we do.

I know. It makes my head spin, too.

The first trope is the more familiar one. You’ve probably heard the tune before — even if you haven’t heard this particular rendition. In a blog post for the National Post newspaper in Canada, Father Tim Moyle mused on why so much atheist opinion he’d seen was so very angry… and opined that atheists are angry because we’re bitter and hopeless about mortality. Quote:

Atheists tend to see the state of their personal world as being limited to the best they can achieve. Life’s injustices will never ultimately be surmounted and they are limited to a ‘what you see is what you get’ assessment of life’s trials. Believers know that things will be better. They know that following the teachings of the church can bring them closer to that promised ideal in the here and now, and that any justice denied them by the events of their personal lives as a result of their fidelity to God will be theirs to enjoy in the life to come.

It is easy to understand how this fuels the anger that many atheists. When one must content themselves with an atheist creed that necessarily means they will never experience ultimate justice, peace or love; they cannot look past the annihilation in death.

No wonder they’re so grumpy.

Elizabeth Edwards
The second trope is somewhat less common. But alas, not that much less common. When Elizabeth Edwards died recently, and issued a farewell statement shortly before her death expressing her deep and abiding sense of hope and meaning and the value of life, right- wing Christian commentator Donald Douglas responded with venom and horror, accusing her of bitterness and nihilism because her statement expressed her gratitude to her family, her friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope… and didn’t mention God. Quote:

Clearly Elizabeth Edwards wants to put her faith in something, be it hope or strength or anything. But not God. I wonder if it’s just bitterness, that she’s been forsaken by more than just her estranged husband — that she’s been forsaken by Him. And imagine if she’d have become First Lady. Americans generally expect outward expressions of faith in our presidents, Christian faith especially, and thus in our First Ladies as well. The Democratic base obviously doesn’t care, as we can see in the “wow factor” expressed by the author at the American Prospect. Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards’ non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists. Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn’t find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I’ve been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.

Yes, yes, before everyone jumps in to correct me — I know. Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t an atheist. She was more of a weak deist, believing in a god who created the universe but didn’t intervene with it on a day- to- day basis. But my point still holds. Even though she did have some sort of belief in God, she didn’t talk about it in her farewell statement… and Douglas therefore felt entirely comfortable trashing her on her deathbed. Actually, the fact that Edwards wasn’t an atheist makes my point stronger. This knee-jerk hostility towards insufficient godliness will apparently get aimed at anyone — atheist, deist, believer, whatever — who fails to express the right amount of piety and gratitude towards God. Even when they’re freaking dying from cancer already.

Millions are good without god
And while this sort of ranting against peaceful non-believers is somewhat less widespread than ranting against angry non-believers, it’s not at all uncommon. Look at the reaction to the atheist marching band in the Christmas parade in Texas, in which the sight of atheists playing “Jingle Bells” and wishing people a happy holiday was enough to spark a firestorm of controversy targeting the atheists as offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers. Or look at the reactions to the atheist ad bus ads and billboards. Yes, some of those ad campaigns criticize religion or make arguments against it. But most of them simply say things like, “You can be good without God.” Or “Millions are good without God.” Or, “Don’t believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” And whenever these ads go up, there’s almost inevitably a horrified response from religious believers, declaring the ads to be insulting, confrontational, in- your- face, and patently offensive by their very nature. An in- your- face offensiveness that’s often seen as a direct result of our supposedly bitter and empty lives. If atheists’ lives were full and meaningful, apparently, we wouldn’t need to compensate by shoving our godlessness in everyone’s face. By, you know, not being in the closet about it.

In other words: When atheists express our anger at religion, we get accused of being hopeless, bitter nihilists.

And when we express our deep sense of meaning and joy and value in life, we get accused of being… well, of being hopeless, bitter nihilists.

Why is that?

Why would “atheists are hopeless and bitter” be the a priori assumption, the only possible conclusion to be drawn from any and all possible evidence?

Why is it so important for so many believers to see religion as the only possible source of hope and joy and meaning… and to see religion-less people as intrinsically cut off from everything that makes life worth living?

It’s not like it makes any real sense. For starters: It’s absurd to look at someone expressing anger, and assume that anger is therefore the only emotion they ever feel. I’ve read plenty of angry atheist rants (heck, I’ve written them myself), and the authors have always written elsewhere about their deep delight, pleasure, and gratitude in life. In fact, gushing, purple-prose, Carl Sagan-esque wonderment at the magnificence of the universe is so common among atheist writers, it’s almost a cliche. (No, that stuff doesn’t make it into the mainstream media as much. Anger makes catchier headlines, and sells more newspapers.) So to read an article by an atheist about their anger over religion, and assume that they must constantly be filled with blinding rage and are incapable of experiencing joy or humor or wonder… it’s like reading a film review by Roger Ebert, and feeling deep pity for his tragically narrow and limited life, since all he ever does is go to the movies. When you think about it, it’s really kind of silly.

Jim and tammy faye bakker
And in fact, when you look at the stuff angry atheists are angry about, you’ll notice that much of it — maybe even most of it — is not about how religious believers treat atheists. It’s about how religious believers treat other believers. Rich faith healers bilking faithful followers out of their hard-earned money; the Catholic church deliberately protecting child- molesting priests and moving them from parish to parish so they can rape more children of Catholic parents; Muslim women being imprisoned, beaten, and even executed for adultery; untouchables in India being taught that their blighted status is punishment for misdeeds in a past life; fundamentalist preachers counseling women to stay in abusive marriages; religious wars and hatreds and bigotries; Protestants hating Catholics; Hindus hating Muslims; everyone hating the Jews… when you ask angry atheists why we’re angry about religion, this is the stuff that tends to pop up. Bigotry and hostility towards atheists is on the list, of course. But an enormous amount of atheist anger is not self-interested annoyance at personal mistreatment. It’s righteous outrage at brutality and injustice. The exact response you’d expect from people with a strong sense of morality and meaning.

So it makes absolutely no sense to look at atheists expressing anger about religion… and assume that we must therefore be bitter and hopeless, despairing over the finality of death, and cut off from everything that is good and true.

And I hope I don’t have to explain how flatly, laughably nonsensical it is to look at non-believers expressing their strong sense of morality and meaning, transcendence and connection, hope and joy… and assume that we therefore must be bitter and hopeless, despairing over the finality of death, and cut off from everything that is good and true.

So what’s going on here?

Where does this assumption come from?

Why is atheist anger so offhandedly dismissed as nihilistic bitterness? Why is atheist happiness so offhandedly denied as logically impossible?

Why is it so important for so many believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

Some of this, of course, is just the standard- issue response to a social change movement. Think about shrill, shrewish feminists; violent and irrational black activists; hysterical queers: any time a marginalized class starts finding its voice and expressing its outrage, they’re framed as either dangerous or trivial, and anything they have to say is automatically dismissed. Hegemony in action, kids! If a system of power is going to protect and perpetuate itself, it’s not about to recognize the validity of any criticism against it. It’s not even going to consider the possibility, even for a second, that this criticism might be valid. And religion has some of the best self-protective, self-perpetuating mechanisms going.

But I think there’s another reason so many believers reflexively frame atheism as bitter and nihilistic.

It’s because they have to.

It’s because accepting the existence of good, happy atheists undercuts so many of the rationalizations for their beliefs.

For starters, the existence of good, happy atheists takes the utilitarian defense of religion and blows it to shrapnel. If you’re arguing that religion is necessary for people to be happy and moral, then the existence of happy moral people without religion pulls the rug right out from under you. The utilitarian argument is ridiculous anyway — it’s like arguing that everyone should believe in Santa Claus because it makes kids happy and better- behaved during the month of December — but even if you don’t care whether the things you believe are true, and only care if they’re useful, then the existence of atheists with rich, good, meaningful lives makes it patently clear that religious belief isn’t actually all that useful. Which is why so many believers, faced with the reality of happy and moral atheists, simply stick their fingers in their ears and chant, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!”

But the existence of good, happy atheists doesn’t just undercut the arguments for why religion is useful. It undercuts some of the most common arguments for why religion is true.

For many religious believers, one of the main pieces of evidence they have for God is the existence of happiness and goodness in their lives. They believe that God not only exists, but is the source of all happiness and goodness, even the very definition of happiness and goodness. And they ascribe every piece of happiness and goodness in their lives to the presence of God, and their personal relationship with him.

So when atheists come along and say, “Nope, no god in my life, no personal relationship with an invisible friend… and my life is both happy and good”? When atheists make it clear, through our words and actions, that we find plenty of meaning and morality and joy in this life and this life alone? It takes that “evidence” and completely pulverizes it. If we can live good, happy lives without a belief in God… then where does that goodness and happiness come from? Believers either have to conclude that God doesn’t much care whether people believe in him… or they have to reject the goodness and happiness of atheists out of hand. And the latter is exactly what way too many of them do.

And happy, moral atheists undercut the truth claims of religion in yet another way — with the insoluble conundrum of why there are atheists in the first place.

God does not bellieve in atheists
When atheists make it clear that we gave religion a sincere try, that we considered the question seriously and thoughtfully and finally came to the conclusion that the god hypothesis was implausible and unsupported by any good evidence… religious believers then have to come up with an explanation for why God hasn’t revealed himself to us. And they either have to conclude once again that God doesn’t much care whether people believe in him… or they have to assume that atheists have hardened our hearts against God, out of anger or bitterness. The idea that we’re okay without God in our lives? The idea that we’re not angry at God for the bad things that happen to us, any more than we’re angry at Santa Claus for not giving us a Big Wheel? For many believers, that’s intolerable. They have to conclude that we rejected religion, either out of pissy resentment over our lives not turning out how we wanted, or out of selfish resentment over God’s moral rules and restrictions. If atheists lead happy lives, it cuts the foundation from the first assumption… and if we lead ethical lives, it cuts the foundation from the second.

So of course these believers are going to reject the idea that atheists can be both moral and happy. And of course, anything that atheists do will get framed as evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. When we express righteous anger at serious injustice being done to ourselves and others… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. When we express our deep sense of morality and compassion and empathy for others… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. And when we express profound, transcendent joy and wonder and gratitude, for existence in general and our lives in particular… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism.

It’s a very crafty bit of rationalization.

There’s just one problem with it.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s not just unfalsifiable, and therefore a bad hypothesis on that basis alone (although it is that). It’s absurd on the face of it. It requires an entirely willful ignorance, a blatant rejection of obvious facts, a deliberate covering of one’s eyes and sticking of one’s fingers in one’s ears, a conscious and entirely sincere willingness to reject reality and substitute one’s own.

It is, in a word, untrue.

And if you care whether the things you believe are true, you might want to re-think it.

Can Atheists Do Anything Right?