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It’s time for us to have an open discussion about rape fantasies

February 16, 2015

fifty-shades-of-greyI have a small dilemma – I want to write about the 50 Shades of Grey craze, but I don’t want to spend an iota of my time either reading the book or watching the film, as I personally have less than zero interest in heteronormative narratives about aggressive and controlling men. So I will freely acknowledge my ignorance about the content of the book/film, and will try to avoid making assumptions about it – but I do have plenty to say about people’s reactions to it.

Here are the issues at hand: 50SOG is a hugely successful story that is said to glorify rape and abuse; some people think this means all straight women secretly want domineering alpha-male husbands; some people fear this is teaching impressionable youths terrible things about relationships; some people say “It’s just fiction, get over it, man”. Usually I wish to immerse the latter type of person in a roiling hell-vat of tone-deaf hippie kazoo buskers, but in this case they are kind of on to something. Kind of.

Fiction can be a type of fantasy; fiction about sex can be one way to express sexual fantasies. And here is a fact that causes very much consternation, discomfort and dismay: a lot of people, including women, do in fact have fantasies about rape. A LOT of people. Even feminist people. It is perfectly normal. (Wait, let me restate that with absolute clarity: having rape fantasies is perfectly normal and acceptable. Actual rape is not.)

This is a truth that many people find troubling to contemplate, and with good reason! It brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions, sometimes for the selfsame people having the fantasies. How can someone be pro-gender equality, pro-consent, anti-rape culture… and enjoy fantasizing about rape? How can this be okay? How can these two things be reconciled inside the same mind?

I believe the answer lies in picking apart the underlying assumption that fantasies are always something a person would want to fully experience in real life. They are not – and this is especially true of sexual fantasies, particularly for women. People fantasize about all kinds of things they would not actually do – some monogamous spouses fantasize about people outside of their marriage, some vanilla people fantasize about wild swinger orgies, some lesbians fantasize about watching gay men having sex.

But let’s consider the likelihood that some people having rape fantasies actually do wish for an element of force or ravishment in their real-life sex. This is still no reason for concern. Like BDSM (or even as an element of BDSM), most people who act out these kinds of fantasies prefer to do so under mutual consent. Since rape is by definition sex without consent, rape fantasies played out would have to be a type of roleplay. That is to say, women fantasizing about rape are not actually wishing for some random sicko to chase them down and brutalize them; in fact, they are very probably fantasizing about people they are legitimately attracted to, and desire sex from in ways that they agree to.

Furthermore, as with BDSM roles, what happens in the bedroom is not necessarily indicative of what goes on in daily life. Two people can have a very strong submissive-dominant dynamic between the sheets, but roles which are much more egalitarian, or even reversed, in their day-to-day interactions. The argument that the popularity of 50SOG proves that women want to be kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen is simple nonsense.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter. It is my opinion that 50 Shades of Grey is likely not intended as an endorsement of patriarchal stereotypes or unhealthy relationship patterns, but simply as a rape fantasy brought to screen. The popularity of rape fantasies themselves thus explains the book and the film’s success. There are lots and lots of other titillating stories out there in a similar vein – the entire genre of romance fiction, read mostly by women, contains plenty of allusions to sexual domination and coercion. 50SOG is no more a reflection of an average real-life relationship than is any other outlandish romance novel or film.

The problem is that, without the consent being explicitly shown, it is true that there are some people who will get the wrong idea; yet if the consent is shown, the fantasy is shattered. Nobody would want to watch it, for the same reason that nobody wants to watch safe sex practices in porn – it simply isn’t as exciting when the cogs and gears behind the façade are on display. Movies are all about suspending reality and maintaining the illusion. This one is no different.

I’m certainly not arguing that there is no valid reason to be concerned about how this film might affect uninformed or impressionable people. If Jian Ghomeshi had watched it, I’m sure he’d have felt even more justified in his behaviour. There is always a problem when fantasy becomes confused with reality, and there are certainly those who have a tendency to muddle or ignore the boundaries between the two.

So what should happen? It is good and important that there are critical conversations happening around this film, but I am concerned about the direction some of them are taking. Shaming people for what they like is never productive. Rather than taking the tone “THIS IS BAD AND GROSS AND YOU’RE BAD IF YOU LIKE IT”, maybe instead we could start to talk openly about rape fantasies, violence fantasies, and other taboo topics – maybe we could begin to educate each other in more healthy ways about the variety and complexity of human sexuality.

Wherein I plug my nose and wade into the vaccine debate

February 7, 2015
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There is nary an issue that makes me more grateful to be childfree than the current debate around vaccines. Hoo boy. I’ve seen more knee-jerking on both sides than two battling troupes of Irish step dancers. We’re going to have to update the taboo dinner-table topics to include “sex, politics, religion, and vaccines” lest our civilization devolve into mortal warfare.

I hold to no position in this debate, and therefore have kept entirely out of it so far, but the social media cacophony has become so shrill that I have decided to try to make a plea for a little bit of cool-headed mediation, if that’s even possible at this point. So I am going to toss my thoughts into the quagmire and then run away before something bites me.

Practitioners of conventional medicine are not evil poison-mongers.

Mostly they are actually concerned professionals weighing the arguments as they understand them and recommending what they think is best to keep you and your family healthy.

Anti-vaxxers are not reckless idiots who want to actively harm other people’s kids.

Mostly they are actually devoted parents weighing the arguments as they understand them and doing what they think is best to keep their families healthy.

Some vaccines are pretty clearly a good idea.

I don’t want to get smallpox and neither do you.

It is not inconceivable that powerful institutions might push non-crucial vaccines on the public for profit.

If you think that people with power and influence never do things that prioritize their own wallets over public welfare, you are just as naïve as you accuse anti-vaxxers of being.

Autism is probably not “caused” by any one thing.

It is unlikely that a phenomenon as complex as Autism Spectrum Disorder has a single root cause. It is far more likely that there are combinations of pre-existing genetic or physiological conditions that combine with various environmental factors to produce autism symptoms. It is possible that vaccines may play some part for some small percentage of people (pro-vaxxers, stop shrieking in your heads and read my next point), but it is also possible that those symptoms would have been triggered anyway by other environmental factors.

Research is not infallible, even lots and lots of research, especially when it is funded by powerful institutions with a fiscal agenda.

As I’ve said before, science is great, but scientists are human. And even if the current research done on vaccines and autism is 100% sound and unbiased, it shows only that vaccines don’t unilaterally cause autism in large samplings of the general population; I don’t see any way it can reliably dismiss vaccines or any other given circumstance as a potential contributing factor when we don’t yet know what the other complicating, pre-existing factors may be.

The argument that pro-vaxxers shouldn’t worry about their kids’ safety if they think vaccines work is unsound.

Nothing in medicine is 100% reliable and that includes vaccines; and also some people can’t get vaccinated for other health reasons. Seriously, let’s not let smallpox become A Thing again. Did you read that article I linked above? Read it, it’s horrific.

The current hysterical anti-anti-vaxxer backlash is almost certainly being fuelled by the media for ratings, and very probably by the aforementioned powerful institutions for reasons of self-interest.

There is no problem having an opinion, but existing within a howling judgemental echo chamber is helpful to no one. Think critically about everything you read. Don’t parrot everything you hear. Try to be nice. Actually, that goes for both sides.

And now that I’ve pissed off practically everyone, I’m gonna go cuddle my cat and hope that this morass never spills over into veterinary medicine.

The Pitfalls of Forced Positivity

January 3, 2015
This was attributed on Facebook to someone called fudgecrumpet. *shrug*

This was attributed on Facebook to someone called fudgecrumpet. *shrug*

Two days ago I was on a plane, returning home after spending the holidays with my family in Ontario. I was feeling fairly sombre; sitting with my own thoughts for hours in the discomfort of a budget airline seat tends to encourage melancholy rumination, and the last couple of years have brought me plenty of fodder for that. At a certain point somewhere over Saskatchewan I decided to be happy. Not forever, because that’s impossible, but for a little while, to break up the tedium. So I closed my eyes, leaned back, and let myself fully immerse in the sorrow that had been hanging out at the edges of my thoughts all day. A few minutes later I was enveloped in the warm glow of something approaching euphoria.

Does that seem backwards? It isn’t. Does it seem like I’m about to sell you the One Simple Weird Trick for finding happiness? I’m not. Partly because I only know what works for me, and I’m not even an expert at that yet. Partly because there’s nothing simple about any of this. But mostly because trying to foist happiness on you is likely to make you feel even worse, and I don’t want to do that to you.

Image by John Packman

Image by John Packman

Our culture is obsessed with positivity. Self-help books selling happiness quick-fixes or law-of-attraction schemes have been around for years. The entire concept of commercial advertising is built around pointing out gaps in our happiness and then offering to fill them. Today we have social media to amplify the furore as it does best, via feelgoody quotation memes of questionable provenance and superficial insight.

Happiness does feel good, of course, and pain feels bad, so it’s understandable that we would try our best to run towards one and away from the other. And there is nothing wrong with a bit of hedonism from time to time. But the endless pursuit of gratification and the insistence on constant optimism does a pretty good job of one thing only, and that is making everyone feel miserable.

This is especially true for people who have been through real trauma. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I think it’s safe to say that telling a person who is experiencing acute emotional distress to look on the bright side is pretty obnoxiously ineffective. And though some people might never think of saying such a thing directly, this is exactly what positivity culture does – it makes us ashamed when we are unable to bounce back quickly, and leaves us feeling alienated and voiceless. No matter how hard we try, most of us cannot coerce ourselves into emotional stability through sheer will, and the fear of being shunned for our negativity compounds the anguish.

Image by John Packman

Image by John Packman

Even for those who are dealing with milder forms of distress, forced positivity does not help, at least not for long. You might be able to talk yourself (or eat, drink, shop, socialize, copulate, exercise, etc.) into bliss for a while, but the inevitable crash later on can leave you feeling even worse about yourself – because, since the positive self-talk seemed to work at first, it must be a failing on your own part that you couldn’t sustain it, right? The fact is, external pressures and expectations disrupt performance in many scenarios, and it is no different with happiness. You can’t find lasting fulfillment by performing joy for others’ benefit. And nobody can avoid pain forever.

I do in fact believe that it is possible to cultivate greater peace and contentment in life. I just think that most of us try to go about it exactly backwards. I believe that genuine, enduring happiness means fully accepting that you can’t always be happy. Fully accepting. Knowing something objectively and fully accepting it aren’t the same thing. We all know that pain is an unavoidable part of life, yet we all spend vast amounts of energy trying to escape it. We fear it because we don’t know how to handle it, and – here’s the kicker – this fear means we can’t even really enjoy the good times, because we worry about how much it will hurt when our luck turns.

When you have the tools to cope with negative emotions, that fear is diminished, and you can allow yourself to feel true enjoyment. You can’t acquire those tools by running away from pain.

So how do you acquire them? As I said before, I’m not an expert. I can only share what works for me, and I am still learning. I have not by any means reached the point where I can maintain Zen-like equanimity through trauma and major stress. I don’t know if I ever will – but I do believe I can train my brain to be happier overall.

For me, certain meditation techniques work well, though it has taken me a long time to get there. I’ve stopped feeling inadequate when I can’t empty my mind, and stopped trying to simply replace bad thoughts with good ones. Instead, when I’m plagued by difficult emotions, I invite them in and allow myself to experience them deeply. I look them full in the face. Imagine putting your hand into near-scalding water and then sort of dispassionately taking note of how the sensations feel on your skin – it’s a bit like that. Most of the time, this causes the emotions to dissipate.

Once that’s done, I have space to let the good stuff in. I remind myself that my brain has the ability to produce chemical reactions on a neurological level that cause sensations of happiness, regardless of outside stimuli. I let it do that. Sometimes it only works a little bit. The level of near-euphoria that I described above doesn’t always happen – in fact, that’s the first time since my brother’s death that I was able to get there. I don’t try to push it. Euphoria or not, I always feel better afterwards. And the more I do this, the more I feel calm and balanced from day to day.

We aren’t taught how to cope with strong emotions, despite the fact that it is unquestionably one of the most important life skills. That’s because there are so few people who would even know what to teach. We fill the knowledge void instead with vapid truisms and short-term gratification. I would like to see social media amplify a different kind of voice. I’d like to see more honesty about struggles and sadness. I would like to learn effective coping techniques from people who have had different experiences from mine. I am not afraid of my pain, or of yours.

Learning About Ferguson

November 28, 2014
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Imagine how absurd it would seem if you wanted to learn all about the country of Latvia, but to do so you elected to speak only to Polish people and read articles on the subject from the Gazeta Wyborcza. Or you wanted to decide whether you should apply to Yale, yet you contacted only students and advisors at the University of Connecticut for their opinion. Both suggestions seem, of course, patently ridiculous. You can clearly see the gaping holes in the logic of such an approach.

Unfortunately, this clear-sightedness only seems to apply when we are positioned outside of both the target group (Latvia or Yale) and the filtering group (Poland or U of C). The faulty logic is not so clear when we ourselves are members of the group through which opinions are filtered; in other words, Polish people themselves will find no issues with basing their views of Latvia on the opinions of other Polish people.

With this in mind, consider the following: when reading about issues of race, if all of the people writing, discussing, commenting and high-fiving each other are people of a different race than the one being discussed, they are probably getting a lot of things wrong. Just as Polish people are not experts on Latvia and U of C students only know so much about Yale, white people should not be considered authorities on the Michael Brown story.

Since the Ferguson grand jury’s decision on Monday, I have been brooding and stewing and mentally pacing as I tried to figure out what I wanted to say. The evidence is conflicting; reports are confusing and contradictory; lawmakers themselves are in disagreement; how are we to separate out the facts, etc. etc.? Then I came to realize two things:

1. As a white Canadian, I am so far removed from this event as to have no hope of ever fully understanding it and its significance.

2. It doesn’t actually matter if the entire truth is ever known. Because the protests in Ferguson (and across the U.S., and worldwide) are not really about one black teenager’s tragic story.

And so, instead of adding one more white perspective to the blizzard, I present you with a list of articles to read by authors who have far more personal insight into this situation than I do.

The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani: a response to the oft-repeated statistics about black-on-black violence.

Black Moms Tell White Moms About the Race TalkWhat it’s like to raise a black son in America today.

I Am Utterly UndoneWhat it’s like to exist as a black person in America today.

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (and Isn’t)“The brutal and unnecessary killing of unarmed Black women, children and men by police officers isn’t called “violence” by any of these people. […] What is “violence” to these people? Property damage. Looting. The destruction of things.”

Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder

Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be TragicAn article on respectability politics posted last August, and even more relevant today as allegations about Brown’s role in a shoplifting incident arise. Is his death still a tragedy, even if he robbed a convenience store? Yes. It is.

Ferguson Protest. Photo by Debra Sweet via Flickr.

Ferguson Protest. Photo by Debra Sweet via Flickr.

Should you change for the sake of your relationship? (Published on elephant journal)

November 18, 2014

Actually, what needs to change is that question. All relationships change the people who are in them. Nobody goes through the fire trial of romantic love and comes out the same on the other side.

In fact, I would argue that for a relationship to last in the long-term—i.e. for two differing individuals to do the hard work of unpacking their own souls so they can better understand each other and live together in harmony—healthy change is essential. So I believe a more fitting question would be, what is healthy change, and what isn’t?

Continue to elephant journal to read the full text.

Image by Dimka via Flickr

Image by Dimka via Flickr

If You Care About Freedom of Speech, You Should Care About Net Neutrality

September 14, 2014

I know, two posts in one day, what? But it was brought to my attention that, if you happen to be American, there’s a very important thing for you to weigh in on by tomorrow: Let the FCC know how you feel about Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality is talked about as if it’s all about money or speed of transfer. It isn’t. It’s about who has control of the information and ideas that get distributed to the general public. Historically, that control has always been held by mainstream media – newspapers, TV, radio. The people whose perspectives were heard were those who could pay to have them disseminated.

Social media has changed the game, big time. I’m sure I need not remind you about the Arab Spring , as a prime example. The current teacher strike here in B.C. is another one closer to home; I have worked in education for more than a decade and have never seen such a high level of support for teachers amongst the general public. I’m convinced it’s because teachers have been able to use Facebook, Twitter, etc. to make their perspectives heard. I believe also that the major changes in attitude toward things like marriage equality have been driven by social media, and a neutral Internet where minority voices can make themselves heard.

This shift in discourse is surely terrifying for those who are used to controlling the conversation. If the U.S. government allows those who can pay more to have faster access to your computer screens (and I have no doubt that this will have ripple effects on Canadian society as well as countries outside of North America), we will return to the same hierarchy. Let’s not do that.

How OCD are you? Take this quiz to find out!

September 14, 2014
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Grab a pen and keep track of your points. Do you agree or disagree that these totally OCD characteristics sound just like you?

1. Something feels wrong, in a way you don’t quite know how to put into words. In the back of your mind is a nagging impulse saying wrong wrong wrong wrong quick hurry danger do something.

Agree? 100 points! Disagree? 0 points.

2. In the front of your mind, things are a lot worse.
In the front of your mind are images and thoughts you can’t escape from. Maybe you are picturing the people you love being horribly maimed or dying grisly deaths. Maybe you are picturing a disgusting person doing unspeakable things to you. Maybe you are picturing yourself doing unspeakable things to someone else. Maybe you visualize awful disease-laden microbes crawling into your body’s every pore and orifice. You try to push and fight and squash these images, but they pop right back up again like a horror film.

Agree? 200 points!! Disagree? 0 points.

3. The only temporary relief you can get from these thoughts is to compulsively act out repetitive gestures or rituals until that panicky wrong wrong wrong impulse feels satisfied and goes quiet. You place an object in a certain way, and then re-do it and re-do it until it feels exactly right. You repeat numbers or words in an exact pattern in your head, and if you make one mistake you go right back to the start, as many times as it takes until you get it perfect. You repeatedly twitch with your entire body to dislodge and shake out the nightmare visions.

Agree? 500 points!!! Disagree? 0 points.

4. The whole time this is happening, you are perfectly aware of how bizarre it is, and how utterly insane you look. You know there is no logical reason for it; you know that it isn’t actually possible to save your family from death by opening and closing and opening and closing and opening and closing the front door until your brain is satisfied that you’ve done it right. You feel intense shame, humiliation and self-loathing. But you can’t stop.

Agree? 1000 points!!!! Disagree? 0 points.

RESULTS:

This might not be the lighthearted quiz you were expecting. But this is what OCD feels like. It is not a funny quirk or a joke. It is hell.

* * *

I wrote the above, partly a description of what my life was like from adolescence to about my mid-twenties, as an introduction for my friend to use in her information sessions about the nature of OCD, and why it’s inappropriate for people to use the term flippantly.

In general, I’m not too bothered about the way that language shifts and words are borrowed for other purposes. And I don’t feel especially offended on a personal level when someone uses “OCD” to describe commonplace fussy, nit-picking or repetitious behaviour. But I do wish that people would educate themselves about what it really is, and realize that it can be a debilitating condition that causes extreme psychological distress, to the point that in some cases it can lead to suicide. People who live with this disorder every day might have a bit of difficulty seeing the humour in it.

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