Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[…]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

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“Vagina” is Not a Four-letter Word

You would be forgiven for assuming that our elected politicians are mature adults who can handle using words that designate genitalia. You would especially be forgiven for assuming that given that many of these politicians are very eager to legislate what can and cannot be done with genitalia.

However, you’d be wrong.

This is old news now for anyone who follows these things, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap. On June 14, the Michigan House of Representatives was debating a new bill that would severely limit a woman’s ability to get an abortion by placing new restrictions on abortion providers. The bill passed the House and will go to the Senate most likely in September. (They were also debating a separate bill, which did not pass, that would’ve restricted all abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest).

In response to this, Representative Lisa Brown (three guesses which party) gave a speech in opposition and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'” You can see her speech in its entirety here.

The shock! The horror! Brown was quickly forbidden from speaking on the House floor by Republican leadership of the House. A spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger said, “House Republicans often go beyond simply allowing debate by welcoming open and passionate discussion of the issues before this chamber…The only way we can continue doing so, however, is to ensure that the proper level of maturity and civility are maintained on the House floor.”

To that end, Republican Representative Mike Callton said that Brown’s remark “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

What Bolger, Callton, and the rest of these concern trolls apparently do not realize is that language is malleable and entirely based on context. In general, words might be inappropriate to say for three different reasons:

  1. They are derogatory and hurtful slurs (i.e. the n-word, fag, retard)
  2. They have been designated as “profane” by our society (i.e. fuck, piss, shit, cunt)
  3. They refer to things or functions that are generally considered inappropriate for polite conversation (i.e. penis, vagina, feces)
These three categories of Bad Words operate in different ways. The first category is inappropriate to say basically always, unless, in some cases, you belong to the group targeted by the slur, or you are using the word in a conversation about the word (but even that is controversial).

The second category are words that are usually used to make a statement. They are much more frequently okay to use than the words in the first category. That’s why when people curse, they use these words. That’s why many writers, such as myself, use them for effect. They’re generally okay to say around your friends, but many people avoid using them in front of people they don’t know well.

The third category comprises words for things that we usually avoid discussing in polite company without a good reason. You wouldn’t exclaim, “That looks like a penis!” in front of your grandma, and you wouldn’t say, “My vagina feels funny” in front of your boss (I mean…unless you have a very open-minded boss/grandma). It’s not the words themselves that are “bad,” it’s the fact that you usually shouldn’t talk about the things those words refer to if you want to be polite.

But all of this falls apart when the context demands discussion of such topics. If you’re at a doctor’s appointment and the doctor needs to tell you something about your penis or vagina, it would be laughable for him or her to avoid using those words. If you’re negotiating sex with a partner, you shouldn’t have to worry that he or she will be offended if you use those words. And if you’re attempting to legislate what women can and cannot do with their private parts, you’re going to have to face the fact that those parts have names.

The most ironic thing here, though, is Callton’s remark about the word “vagina”: “I don’t even want to say it in front of women.” First of all, that’s patriarchal as hell; women can handle naughty words just as well as men can. Second, it’s not just a naughty word; it’s a word for a thing that (most) women experience on a constant basis.

Some conservatives have apparently made a slightly more legitimate criticism of Brown in that she connects restricting abortion with rape (via her “no means no” allusion). I say “slightly more legitimate” only because, having once been a pro-lifer, I understand how they would take offense.

After all, pro-life politicians do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Yo, I’m gonna take away some rights from women and tell them what to do with their own vaginas today.” They think, “Abortion is murder and I have a duty to stop it just like I would stop the murder of a child or adult.” To them, drawing any parallels whatsoever between restricting abortion and committing sexual assault would naturally seem preposterous. It is only those of us who couch the debate in the language of personal liberty who see the similarities.

That’s why this whole incident really highlighted for me the divisions between liberals and conservatives on the matter of reproductive rights. It’s not even just that they can’t agree on whether or not abortion should be legal; it’s that they can’t agree on what abortion is, and on the terms with which the debate should be framed. Liberals say abortion is a woman’s right over her own body; conservatives say it’s the murder of an unborn human being. How can we ever reach a consensus if we define our terms differently?

I don’t know how to solve this problem–and if I did I would probably be the savior of American politics–but at least this story has a partially-happy ending. Brown and several of her colleagues performed the play The Vagina Monologues with its playwright Eve Ensler on the steps of the statehouse last Monday night as a tribute to our right to speak the names of our own body parts. About 2,500 spectators came to watch.

But as for the bill that the House passed, that’ll go on to marinade in the state Senate, which currently has 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. I’m not getting my hopes up.

Sunday Link Roundup

So I’ve decided to dedicate one post each week to sharing all the awesome things I read elsewhere on the Internet. Hopefully I actually remember to do this each week. 🙂

1. On the benefits of psychiatric labels. I’ve written about this before, but this blogger says it beautifully: “My labels have freed me to live in better harmony with the person I wish to be.”

2. On sexual harassment as an exercise of power.

3. On casual sex and how, for some people, it’s just not that great. I can really relate to this.

4. On “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting in life. This super-controversial post uses video games as a metaphor for privilege. It’s been accused of ignoring issues like class, but I think we can all agree that Metaphors Are Imperfect.

5. On the (in)visibility of bisexuality. Also, everything else on this blog is fantastic.

6. On Mitt Romney as a bully. I wrote about this too, but this post explores more facets of the story. “The fact that so many responses to Romney’s abuse categorise it as pranking or fun rather than bullying says a lot about why this country has such a big bullying problem. The refusal to identify what he did as wrong, and to connect the dots on what it means politically, speaks to dangerous social attitudes.”

7. Last but not least, this blogger dedicated an entire post to why my blog is awesome. Needless to say, I feel really really special. 😀

Northwestern Sex Week and Conservative Hypocrisy

Northwestern’s annual Sex Week is coming up next week. Sex Week is basically exactly what it sounds like. I quote their website: “our mission is simple: we want people to start talking. Sex Week is meant to provide students with fun, provocative, and informative opportunities to explore the role of sex and sexuality in our lives. There is no religious or ideological affiliation: just an open forum to learn and discuss.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, according to an organization called the Love & Fidelity Network, Northwestern Sex Week has a major problem:

Northwestern University sponsored its own Sex Week last spring, entitled “Rock her World.” Featured tips for men included how to please their female sex partners.

Despite good intentions for fun and informative sexual health education, many university programs and events lack crucial health information on the emotional and physical harms of casual sex. Health Centers readily distribute condoms as the only real safeguard against STIs (sexually transmitted infections), neglecting to encourage abstinence as a realistic and effective option. Students are not getting the health information they need. [emphasis theirs]

That’s right, our intelligent, well-informed college students are not aware that abstinence is an option. Years of Bush-mandated abstinence-only sex education, along with a heavy cultural stigma against teenage sexuality (particularly female teenage sexuality), have somehow failed to inform us of the basic fact that it is, in fact, physically possible not to have sex.

Who would’ve thought?

They continue:

The institution of marriage and the important role of the family are no longer esteemed and defended, but are instead forgotten or criticized. Students learn to question “traditional” marriage, family, and sexual norms, without being given the appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate those questions. They learn how to critique these institutions and principles, unaware that a defense exists as well.

Marriage and family are “forgotten?” I don’t know, it’s pretty hard to forget about marriage and family. All around me I see LGBTQ activists fighting for their right to get married in the first place, politicians trumpeting “family values,” and fellow students in serious relationships. I also see that Northwestern actually offers a very popular “Marriage 101” class (apparently that’s not enough to offset the debauchery of Sex Week in the eyes of the Concerned Adults over at the Love & Fidelity Network). Northwestern is also affiliated with an institution that provides family and couples’ therapy, for which I’ve helped with research in the past. This institution is named–wait for it–the Family Institute.

But no, clearly, marriage and family are completely “forgotten” at Northwestern.

According to the Love & Fidelity Network, we lack the “appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate” questions of marriage and family. Instead, all we can do is criticize and condemn them. In order to evaluate these issues “intelligently,” then, we need resources and events from this completely-unbiased-I-promise-you organization.

First of all, on behalf of Northwestern students, I’d like to thank the folks over at the Love & Fidelity Network for their concern trolling. I really don’t know where we’d be without you.

Second, I’d like to propose a radical idea–what if college students are not actually the dumb, easily brainwashed sheep that you imagine them to be, and what if they are actually capable of critical thinking and of choosing whichever path best suits them in life?

I think I hear crickets.

I want somebody to find me an example of a time when a sexually active college student received information from a conservative group like this one and said, “Wow, abstinence? I never thought of that! I’m totally going to try it now!”

Do college students at times make bad decisions about sex? Of course. They neglect to use condoms. They don’t get tested for STIs enough. They pressure someone into having sex with them. They don’t ask for what they want, or they don’t ask their partner what they want. They’re afraid to give consent, or to withhold it. They use stereotypes to try to understand someone else’s sexuality. They use alcohol to fake a feeling of confidence that they haven’t yet developed.

These are all real problems, and organizations like Sex Week are trying to combat them. These are the problems that college health centers try to solve–and I would know, because I work very closely with my own college health center on many of these issues.

These problems don’t have easy solutions, and sometimes we don’t know what the solutions are.

But you know what isn’t a solution? “Hey guys! Try abstinence! It’s super awesome I swear!”

A caveat–abstinence may be the right choice for some people. No serious sex educator would ever deny this. But the thought process that should lead someone to choose abstinence should go something like this: “You know, I don’t think I’m comfortable having sex yet. I’m going to wait until I feel like it’s right for me.” It should not go like this: “I feel like having sex would make me a slut/mean I have no morals/prevent me from finding a serious partner/make me a bad person.” But that second thought process is the one conservative groups want you to have.

How do I know? I’ll continue to quote from the Love & Fidelity Network’s website:

Today’s college students are the next generation of leaders and parents. There is a desperate need for them to be well-informed about the lifestyles and behaviors that best enable them to live responsibly, reasonably, healthily and morally. [emphasis mine]

So, abstinence = moral, sex = immoral. Surprise, surprise.

These organizations love to pretend that their agenda is based on anything other than their own personal moral codes by claiming that casual sex is “dangerous.” It would take me an entire book to dispel this myth. Maybe I’ll write it someday.

For now, let’s just examine several things that are frequently claimed as “risks” of casual sex. One is STI transmission and pregnancy, which can be almost completely prevented through condoms and other forms of contraception. An inconvenient research finding is that abstinence-centered sex education actually increases the likelihood that young adults will not use proper protection when they inevitably do have sex. (There are many sources for this; Google it.)

Another is sexual assault. Conservatives love to trot this one out, insisting that casual sex is to blame for rape on college campuses. False. Sexual assault is caused by individuals making the decision to have sex with someone else without their consent. It is also caused by a culture that lets rapists go free if their victims seemed to have been “asking for it.”

(Incidentally, why is it that sex-positive organizations and groups like Sex Week and our own campus health center are constantly advocating for victims of sexual assault, whereas conservative groups are always silent except to berate them for “dressing like sluts”? Who’s really looking out for college students’ health and safety here?)

Another “risk” is this amorphous conglomeration of emotional issues that people–fine, let’s be honest, women–apparently face if they have casual sex. In her amazing book What You Really Really Want, Jaclyn Friedman writes:

You may have heard about oxytocin. It’s a chemical that is often released during sexual stimulation. Some studies have shown that when we release oxytocin, it can intensify the feelings (both positive and negative) we have about the person we’re having sex with. Unfortunately, this chemical response has been warped into an argument by abstinence-until-marriage advocates and other social conservatives, who claim that because of this bond, women get hurt by casual sex more than men. And the argument goes further, claimed that if women form an oxytocin bond with too many people, the effect will wear off and they’ll find themselves unable to bond properly with anyone.

Please.

Friedman goes on to cite studies that show that, first of all, it’s too little oxytocin that causes problems, not too much. She also cites research showing that oxytocin is also produced in many other situations, such as playing games, petting dogs, singing in groups, yoga, talking with close friends, and even eating certain foods.

As far as I and other sex-positive writers have been able to find, there is no research actually showing that casual sex is intrinsically harmful.

What is harmful, however, is the shame we choose to burden others with when they express their sexuality in ways that we don’t personally like. And while there are definitely problems with hookup culture, hookup culture and casual sex are not the same thing.

I can go on and on showing the hypocrisy of organizations like the Love & Fidelity Network, but this post is already nearly 1,500 words long. I could talk about how this organization links to the National Organization for Marriage on its site–yes, that one. I could talk about how marriage isn’t a panacea, how many members of our society still don’t have the right to get married in the first place.

I could talk about how great sex and marriage aren’t mutually exclusive, and how nothing about Sex Week suggests that people shouldn’t get married. I could talk about how intelligent and thoughtful my peers are, and how hard they’re working to define their lives on their own terms, and how much they struggle with sex and sexuality. I could talk about how they’re doing just fine without the Love & Fidelity Network.

But all of that would take a book, or many books.

So I’ll just say this: if you’re a Northwestern student, go check out Sex Week. And if you’re not, try to appreciate the fact that we’re growing up and finding our own answers, even if they aren’t the answers you would’ve chosen for us.

On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.