Monthly Archives: April 2012

PHMT: Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

There’s a well-known saying in feminist circles. It’s so common that it has garnered its own acronym: PHMT. Patriarchy hurts men too. On balance, it hurts men somewhat less than it hurts women, but the harm is still there.

There’s another truism: patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. (Actually, that’s my invention, but the concept has been repeated often enough that it deserves its own pithy phrase.) In other words, just because a woman is doing it, doesn’t mean it isn’t patriarchy in action. Men can be and are feminists.

Another trope in the community of people who struggle to diminish the influence of bigotry of various sorts is, “Intent is not magic.” In other words, if you repeat sexist, racist, or homophobic ideas, the fact that you were not aware of the bigoted undertones of your ideas does not lessen the harm caused by them.

This brings me to the subject of this post. I’m a big fan of (henceforth referred to as FTB) and of international feminism and activism. FTB has made the wonderful decision to bring Taslima Nasreen, the writer, doctor, and activist for women’s rights and freedom from religion, on board. She has had her books banned in several countries and been threatened by more fatwas than Salman Rushdie for her writings. She is courageous, intelligent, fierce, uncompromising–all qualities I admire and aspire to emulate. And, on the subject of sexuality and consent, she is quite wrong. Some of her first posts on FTB have involved her making some dubious assertions on the nature of prostitution and pornography. She believes that both are inherently exploitative and oppressive, and that no woman truly consents to either. Other bloggers, particularly Greta Christina and Natalie Reed, have pointed out the weaknesses in Taslima’s arguments. Had she simply included the caveat that some women choose prostitution, and made a case for why they should not be allowed to, I think there would not be as many objections to her positions. However, she seems to genuinely be struggling with the concept of consent. Further evidence for this hypothesis was provided the other day as I was reading my Twitter feed. 

The link in her tweet turned out to be a news story from Denmark about a couple in their 40s. They met and went to the woman’s house and had sex there several times. However…

“When the 47-year-old wanted even more, her partner said no.”

The man then tried to leave the apartment but the woman prevented him from escaping and demanded he have sex with her again.

“Because the 43-year-old saw no other alternative, he complied with the woman’s wishes another few times so he could finally leave the apartment,” the spokesman said.

“But when she continued to refuse and demanded even more sex from him, he fled to the balcony and alerted the police.”

Now, I appreciate that women in their 40s may indeed be having wonderful sex. But it seems to me that if you have to coerce or force someone into having sex with you, it can’t be that good. The woman in question is, rightfully in my mind, being charged with sexual assault and illegal restraint. The article does not go into much detail about what measures she took to restrain him, nor his response to the experience.

But Taslima Nasreen, who famously fights against patriarchal restrictions and for sexual liberation, does not see that there is a problem here. Her response seems in line with those who commented on the story at the newspaper website:

Arrest her? They should give her a medal. I wish my wife had this woman’s sex drive.

What a tragedy. What did you say her address was?

We should all be so lucky! 🙂
The editors of the story seem to be of a similar mind, judging by the photo they chose to accompany the story:

If it were the story of a woman reporting a similar encounter, it would be pretty clear-cut: preventing someone from leaving in order to coerce or force them to have sex with you when they do not want to is sexual assault. It is sexual assault because there is no consent. It is a terrible thing to do to another person. It should not be excused when either a man or a woman does it.

With responses like this, is it any wonder than men who are raped hesitate to report their experiences? This is why consent and autonomy are central values for atheist humanists like myself. Yes, we should fight against sexual exploitation and objectification, but why? We should end human trafficking and sex slavery, but why? For me, these questions are answered by the axiom that all humans should, ideally, have the ability to control their own bodies. This right exists, of course, within the network of social obligations all humans have to each other to varying extent, and is subject to restriction if it can be shown to cause harm to other people. But this assumption provides a useful framework through which to interpret other people’s actions on an ethical basis. It’s not ethical to imprison, or try to imprison someone to coerce them into sex with you. It’s a violation of that person’s autonomy and his or her bodily integrity. But because our patriarchal culture teaches us that women possess sex, and men must try to take it from them, and women don’t actually like sex itself but only agree to it in order to exchange it for something else of greater value–a Mercedes Benz, a house, children, emotional intimacy–the actions of a woman who is violating another person’s autonomy are seen in a jolly, joking light. The idea of a woman wanting sex more than a man is quite literally laughable.

And so Taslima, despite being opposed to the patriarchy, perpetuated it by enforcing patriarchal expectations onto this man and woman. I do not doubt for one second that she did not intend to do so–her writings on feminism and women’s sexual empowerment are more than enough evidence to convince me that she would not knowingly support patriarchy. Thus, Taslima demonstrates that intent is not magic, and patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. And perhaps because gender inequality in Taslima’s cultural background is so much more pronounced than it is in American or European culture, she was blinded to the fact that in this instance, it was a man who was the victim of the patriarchy.

Who knows how this man experienced it–maybe it was traumatic or maybe not. But if it was, you can be certain that there will be pressure from the entire culture to keep his trauma to himself or risk mockery, derision, questioning of his masculinity, and so on, thanks to the patriarchal idea that men can’t be raped (by women, anyway) and women never want sex, and if they do, it’s absurd and hilarious. This viewpoint is not supported by data, it is a lazy form of stereotypical thinking. It conceals the guilt of those perpetrating sexual assault, either men or women (though the vast, vast majority of rapists are actually men) and it conceals the pain of their victims. It makes me sad that Taslima has this blind spot, but I plan to continue reading her blog.  I recognize that I owe my ability to choose these beliefs in part to race, class, and educational privilege, and I’m open to hearing arguments that may change my mind.

Update: This post has been edited slightly, mostly to add paragraph breaks in the last section of the piece. This is what happens when I publish things at 4 am. Seems I got some odd formatting up in the mix.



Filed under Anti-bigotry, Feminism, Religion

Transcendent Love

On the school bus. Autumn. Upstate New York. I was nervous about the swim meet I was going to. It was only the second time I competed as a diver. I gazed out the window. The images of red-gold, orange leaves imprinted on my mind. At 60 mph, the maples, oaks, and spruce slid slowly by my vision as if I were on one of the drugs I hadn’t yet tried. I felt as if I’d transcended time. I wondered if this was what was meant by the stories I’d read of bodhisattvas attaining enlightenment. No attachments. Just the moment. Pure beauty.


The Himalayas. The coordinator of our semester in India had decided that riding on a bus on these narrow one-lane roads was too terrifyingly dangerous, and so had hired a convoy of six white taxis to transport our group of 20 students plus 2 teachers. We were heading up into the mountains, to visit Yamunotri, the source of the holy river Yamuna. The day before, I had received a letter from my boyfriend at the time. The first person I had ever had penetrative sex with. I thought I was in love with him. In his letter, he had told me that he had fallen for another woman, a fellow student at Oberlin College. I was, of course, heartbroken, but I also felt strangely relieved and liberated. The taxis wound their way up and down steep mountain slopes. My friend Michael pulled himself entirely out of his taxi window and hoisted himself up onto the roof, sitting crosslegged in the luggage rack. He spread his arms wide, smiling a beatifically and singing a song I could not make out from where I watched him, two cars ahead. I was surrounded by verdant jungle. Wisps of cloud spilled over the tips of the mountain above, and impossibly green rivers rushed through the valleys below. I felt embraced by the world, as if all of this was there for me. Not just that it all was there for me–the greenery, the cold streams and rivers, the haunting mist, the clean white taxis, the gravel roads, my playful fellow students–but also that it was me. There was no separation. Love was not something that could depart from my life or be taken away. The universe loved me. I was the universe. I was life, moving through life: I was myself. How could I not be loved, boundlessly, endlessly? I felt joyous and free. There was no need to worry because I was one with life and it would provide me with everything I would ever need.


  I sat cross-legged in the small building whose walls were straw bales covered with earthen plaster. The window before me overlooked the Breitenbush river, ice-cold, fed by the melting glaciers of the Cascadian mountains. I was high on something, weed definitely and probably mushrooms too, or maybe datura. I’d been alternating between meditating and playing my clarinet. I’d spent the entire day doing yoga. As I sat, lotus-style, the constant stream of music in my head (it’s always playing, even now as I write this) took visible form in my mind’s eye and reared up in front of me, a fiery snake curling out of the ground beneath me. Kundalini energy embodied took shape in my mind and manifested in my awareness. The snake touched its mouth to mine and I wrapped my hands around it as I would my clarinet. I played the snake like a musical instrument. The mystic serpent and I united and we became the music I am always hearing in my head. Then the snake reared back, curled round and under, and entered me like a phallus. My body rocked with successive orgasms. I was ecstatic. The release I felt was blissful, pure, and utterly transcendent. I had become the lover of all of creation, and creation was loving me back with an intensely sexual sense of joy and pleasure.


What does all of this mean? Ultimately, nothing. My synapses firing in unusual and interesting patterns. My individual experience, to which I can assign a meaning or not. Back in the day, I might have taken these experiences to be indicative of “something larger than myself,” as the language goes. I was raised with a vague agnostic mix of Christianity, paganism, and Zen Buddhism. Occasional flashes of strict, judgmental Christianity during my teenage years served only to drive me away from organized religion. I am glad I had a pagan/goddess-worshiping phase, mostly for the psychological benefits of being a woman and devoting a lot of time to thinking about the feminine divine in this patriarchal society. But ultimately, after attending university and learning about statistics, the scientific method, and common logical fallacies, I decided that such experiences were indicative of nothing more than the pretty awesome and amazing things my brain can apparently do when given the right stimuli. At one point in time, I took these experiences to mean that the universe is conscious and intelligent and watching out for me. At another time, I took experiences like these to mean that the Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the pagan ones, both old and new, were symbolic embodiments of real life energy which, again, was conscious, and flowing through me and all living things. At another point in time, I considered that perhaps the Buddhists were correct and I was experiencing momentary glimpses of moksha, liberation, and that perhaps all this reality I saw before me really was merely illusion.

Eventually, though, I decided that these ideas were all too vague and fluid to have much usefulness, and I stopped using them. Going back to school as a student of the sciences gave me the tools to realize why I had let them go: no evidence. No meaningful hypothesis. No useful predictions.

I’m writing this to hopefully give one more data point in the constellation of information about atheists’ lives that is developing now. I still have these moments even though I’m not just atheist but also anti-theist. Little moments of pure in-the-moment joy and relaxation; experiences of transcendent love for all humanity, all living beings, even all inanimate objects; these are the legacy of our evolutionary heritage and as such belong to all living beings, regardless of what supernatural or social framework they press into service to provide some philosophical structure for the experience.


Filed under Personal, Religion


Okay, so, I can’t get enough of music. It’s the most amazing thing ever.

Saul Williams during his "Niggy Tardust" tour

Saul Williams

I play music: I’m a clarinetist primarily but I also play sax and flute and I’m decent with most percussion instruments and I can eke out a bass line when I’m lucky enough to have a bass around to play with. Both my parents are musicians and one of the things I love most about my life is that when I go to visit my folks, we often relax by playing tunes together. How many people can say that about their parents?!? Not many, I reckon. I count myself lucky. So I’m really passionate about music.

There are some interesting neurobiological reasons that humans pretty much 100% go crazy for music of one kind or another, but that’s not the subject for today’s post. Today’s post is going to be easy, and I deserve to do an easy post because I worked hard on yesterday’s post. Today I’m just going to talk about a musician who I love, who I also think is under-appreciated.

Today I’m talking about Saul Williams.

Saul Williams is a poet at heart. I mean, that’s how he started. He’s been called the grandfather of spoken word, and his poetry is truly excellent. But I’m honestly not that into poetry. Whatever. It’s cool, some people like it, and I’m probably something of a philistine for being indifferent to it. (Garrison Keillor and his boring “Writer’s Almanac” certainly hasn’t helped.) Anyway, Saul is a brilliant poet, so brilliant that he can get someone like me to listen to his poetry over and over again. He has four albums now: Amethyst Rocks, Saul Williams, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (possibly one of the best album titles ever), and now Volcanic Sunlight. In fact, I just discovered that last one, as it came out in November 2011 and I somehow missed it at the time. I’ve listened to a few of the tracks from it and they seem to be following his artistic arc: he’s gone from the very raw, un-melodic, dressed-up spoken word of his first album to more refined and harmonically advanced singing and better arrangements. Amethyst Rocks is almost just spoken word with some music and sound effects added on top. To get the best effect, I’d advise you to check out the 1998 movie SLAM! which starred Saul Williams and his poetry, along with Sonja Sohn (Wire fans will recognize her as Detective Kima Greggs). Saul Williams had more interesting and coherent musical production, but Saul mostly still stuck to rapping/speaking over a beat. His singing was impassioned but rough and ragged, as in “List of Demands”:

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust showed a dramatic change in his delivery. I think he got voice lessons, because his singing improved, and he also sang a lot more. Also, the album was produced by the inimitable Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the influence is obvious when you listen to one of my favorite tracks off it, “WTF!”:

Now, listening to some of the tracks from his newest album, Volcanic Sunlight, that writing this post prompted me to discover, it seems his sound has gotten even more melodic and maybe even a bit poppy. Some people think poppy is a bad thing. Not me. I love it. I like some pop music, but what I like even more is non-pop artists taking elements of pop (catchy hooks, beautiful melodic lines) and making them their own. Take this track, “Explain My Heart”, for instance:

Though Saul’s musical style may be evolving, one thing that has remained constant is his utter devotion and fascination with words, wordplay, language, politics, race, love, mysticism, and life. I love his repeated use of the rhyme “worthless” and “earthless” which he uses as a synonym for both homelessness, rootlessness, and lacking political awareness. His song “Black Stacey” was an education for me on colorism, the prejudice against dark-skinned people that is enacted within the black community as opposed to racism, which is enacted in the context of our multi-racial society.

Saul Williams is definitely hardcore. Controversial, direct, provocative, yet beautifully poetic and heartfelt. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “industrial/punk hip hop” fan, he’s worth giving a listen to.

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Filed under Anti-racism, MUSIC!

Arrogance Takes Many Forms

If you’re interested in anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and have frequented the intertubes where AGW is discussed, as I have, then you may have seen someone justifying their denial of AGW by saying something along these lines:

Humans are too tiny and insignificant to have an effect on something so vast as the climate. How arrogant you are to think that we are really changing the course of the planet’s geologic history. 

I looked around for examples of this, but the only results I found were people writing about how to respond to this type of argument. So, trust me, I’m not making this up. People really do think that humans are too small and puny to be able to change the climate.

Clearly, they’re wrong. But it makes a sort of intuitive sense, given the nature of our individual experiences with nature. Who hasn’t stood at the edge of the ocean or looked up at the stars and ruminated on how vast the universe is, and how ant-like and minuscule we humans are in comparison?

But… hold up one second. We feel puny next to the vastness of the ocean. And we also feel puny next to the vastness of the stars. And yet the ocean itself is quite puny when compared to the volumes of space between the stars. And therein lies the difficulty. Our brains are not equipped to differentiate between something that’s just a little bit vast, like the ocean, and something that’s hugely, enormously vast, like our galaxy.

The total volume of the water in Earth’s oceans is approximately1.3 billion cubic kilometers. Let’s put that in scientific notation. Probably a lot of you already know what scientific notation means, but since I hope to eventually reach out to audiences that aren’t as familiar with basic scientific concepts, I’m going to go over it here.

To put a number in scientific notation means to take the number and show how it would look if it were multiplied by ten, but this ten is raised to the power of however many zeroes come after the main number. So,

10 x 10 = 100.


102 = 100.

Therefore, in scientific notation, 100 looks like this:

1 x 102

The number 130 in scientific notation looks like this:

1.3 x 102

And the number 1,300 looks like this:

1.3 x 103

With me so far? I know this is kind of annoying and dry, but I’m talking about it for a reason. Scientists use scientific notation because it allows them to quickly and easily compare numbers that are mind-bogglingly big to numbers that are mind-bogglingly bigger. Or, if you’re talking about chemistry or physics, where you’re talking about comparing the sizes of molecules, atoms, or sub-atomic particles, it allows you to differentiate between things that are so small you can’t comprehend it and things that are even smaller than that.

It’s hard to immediately perceive that 9,000,000,000,000,000,000 is a much smaller number than 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. But if you put it in scientific notation, then you can immediately see the difference between 9 x 1018 and 1 x 1025. The numbers in superscript after the ten are the most important thing here, much more important than the 1 or the 9 that come before the “x 10” part. Since the difference between 25 and 18 is 7, that means that the second number is approximately seven times larger than the first number. Or, as they say in Science Land, seven orders of magnitude greater. One “x 10” is the same thing as an order of magnitude. Sounds super impressive, doesn’t it? That’s why science it cool.

The concept of scientific notation is not, in and of itself, a truly difficult one to learn. What is difficult is learning to keep straight the various scales of measurement that are important in learning how to think about the reality in which we all live: there are the truly vast scales of interstellar space, the merely gargantuan scales of our solar system and our planet, the teeny-tiny ones we use to talk about single-celled organisms, the truly minuscule measurements we use to talk about molecules and atoms, and then there are those that we are more familiar with, the ones that work on a scale comprehensible to our monkey brains.

So, returning to our awe-inspiring oceans and galaxy: the volume of the Earth’s oceans is about 1,300,000,000 cubic kilometers, or 1.3 x 109 cubic kilometers. Okay, that’s a big volume, especially considering that a cubic kilometer is a space large enough to contain a smallish town as well as the air above it for a significant distance. Well, significant to humans. And we naturally feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer bigness of the oceans. However, let’s consider the volume of space inhabited by the stars that also inspire feelings of awe in us tiny humans. The approximate volume of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about  3.3Ă—1053 cubic kilometers. And that’s just this galaxy. Lots of the stars we see at night aren’t even in the Milky way.

What I’m getting at is that it’s really easy to forget that even though our planet seems quite large to us, the Earth is tiny compared to the rest of the universe. It’s easy to forget the huge difference between the size of the earth and the size of, say, the solar system or the galaxy, because our brains aren’t equipped or predisposed towards dealing with numbers and scales like those. I’m a strong advocate of recognizing the limitations our evolutionary heritage sets upon us, and this is definitely one of them. The fact that many people have the misperception that humans are too insignificant to affect something so vast as the atmosphere or the climate is an artifact of that inherent limitation of our ape brains. It takes training and practice to get used to thinking about really big or really small numbers and understanding what they mean. Anytime we humans have to think outside the mental parameters set for us by millions of years of evolution–that is, anything not primarily revolving around social relationships, human-sized spaces or objects, or food–it takes a bit of extra mental effort. This refusal to recognize the power humans can have when they are numerous and equipped with technology dates back a long way. In another post, I’ll explore humanity’s long history of altering our environment, including climate and geology, dating all the way back to the beginning of civilization, but for now I’ll just leave you with this thought: in his book The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen talks about the Europeans’ first impression of the New World: they talked incessantly about the sheer, mind-boggling abundance: salmon so thick you could walk across a stream on their backs. Berries so numerous their juices dyed their horses’ bellies pink as they walked through them. Flocks of birds so numerous they blacked out the sun. All this abundance, they reasoned–puny humans could never put a dent in these enormous populations. Centuries later, flocks of birds no longer darken the sky, carrier pigeons are extinct, berries grow in isolated patches in gaps between human settlements, and fisheries worldwide are experiencing population crashes even as environmentalists struggle to restore salmon habitat. How long will we continue to make the same mistakes? About as long as we continue to fail to train our children to think beyond their human limitations. The true arrogance is thinking that our immediate intuitive reaction to a given problem is the correct one, and that we can comprehend the difficulties of existing in a world with advanced technology and 7+ billion human beings without taking drastic measures to change the way the majority of people think about life, nature, and the environment.


Filed under Global warming, Science

Writing a Blog is Kind of Intimidating!

I was overwhelmed for a week with the multiplicity of subjects I could write about. I’ve been learning more about Bayes’ Theorem lately, should I write about that, using the occasion to test my understanding of the subject? Or, perhaps I could write something about how feminism needs to embrace the struggle for transgender equality, for the same reasons feminism needs to embrace anti-racism and LGBT rights: feminism that’s not intersectional is totally useless. I could have written something up about Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., the African-American Marine Corps veteran who was shot dead in his home, in his underpants, by racist and out-of-control cops in White Plains, NY, for the terrible crime of accidentally setting off his Life Alert pendant and then not wanting to let the cops into his apartment. White Plains is only a few hours away from where I’m living now. I’m also reading a fascinating book called Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, which delves into the science of cognition in an effort to explain why some religious ideas are nearly universal and yet vary so much in the details of their expression.

For right now, I’m writing a post about how freaking hard it is to write something every day, or even every other day. It’s so much easier to just be the peanut gallery for someone else’s stuff. That way, if I have a hard time articulating my thoughts, I can just not say anything. Committing to writing something every day, as my friend Audley Z. Darkheart has done, would be a major departure from my current mode of existence, which is unstructured, open-ended, and undisciplined. Which is why I’m making the commitment. Part of the reason I decided to start writing was to encourage myself to practice the discipline of writing, of doing it every day whether I feel like it or not, even if it’s just a short thing to complain about this or that thing I saw on the news.

So here it is. Check this space tomorrow. I’ve decided to write about how humans relate to the natural world and how this ties into the denial of anthropogenic global warming (AGW for short). Boo-yeah!


Filed under Personal, The art of writing

The architecture of stagnation

The architecture of stagnation

A hotel in downtown Binghamton shows off the architectural style that dominates the region: the blocky, ostentatious remnants of the economic confidence of the 60s and 70s, now faded into drab monuments of past prosperity.


April 1, 2012 · 8:41 pm

How to be a Feminist Ally in Three Simple Steps

Here’s my simple recipe for increasing your effectiveness in fighting against misogyny. Replace “misogyny” with racism or any other form of bigotry (there are so many!) and it should still work.

1. Admit that misogynists exist. There are probably more than you think there are.

2. Observe these people who genuinely feel hostility or contempt towards women just because they are women. Pay attention to how they speak and act. If it helps, you can start with the more obvious examples.

3. Avoid speaking and acting similarly to how misogynists act. Even if it’s something that you don’t necessarily perceive as being connected to misogyny, by avoiding that behavior/joke/epithet, by avoiding it, you will decrease the amount of cover currently enjoyed by those who sincerely and actively hate women. And you will make it easier for women to tell you apart from them.

Pretty simple, yes? Except that unless you’ve been both subjected to misogyny yourself and also have deliberately tried to understand it, you’re likely to be inept at detecting it. That’s because sexism and misogyny are not always obvious, especially when they’re not aimed at you. If they were obvious, don’t you think we’d have solved the whole gender equality thing already? So, if you’re in doubt, take a cue from those who have, not by any choice of their own, but because of circumstances forced upon them by society, been able to collect data about how misogynists behave: women. And feminists–misogynists really hate feminists and often reserve the worst of their abuse for them. Please note: not all feminists are women, and not all misogynists are men.


Filed under Anti-bigotry, Feminism