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Archive for the ‘sex’ Category

So over on Tumblr (yes, that’s still a thing that’s happening), ozymandias271 explained what “condoms are 98% effective” actually means in a recent post and it’s kinda made my brain explode.

I’ve been hearing that statistic (or other similar ones) for ages, and never concerned myself with it too closely. Given how little casual (or any kind of) sex I’ve generally been having, it wasn’t of much personal importance, and while I advocate strongly for comprehensive sex and relationships education, it should definitely be someone better-informed than me doing it. But I knew enough to know that condoms are good, and knowing how they work is also good, and if I needed more detailed data than that I’d surely be able to do the research.

But 98% always seemed oddly low. I wasn’t sure how much it was affected by issues like compliance or user error – is that remaining 2% at least partly explained by people just applying them wrong? – but taken on its face that’s actually quite a high-sounding failure rate. Do you really only have to have fifty sexual encounters involving a condom before you’ve statistically had one for which it might as well not have been there and you’re facing all the risks of unprotected sex? Given how much sex straight people on TV seem to be having, this makes it sound like unplanned pregnancies due to contraceptive ineffectiveness would be cropping up pretty regularly, and just something to be accepted as par for the course.

Anyway it turns out that’s totally not what “98% effective” means. Taking the outcome of unplanned pregnancy specifically, here’s how one website describes the effectiveness of condoms:

In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy—two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate.

98% effective doesn’t mean a condom is only doing its job in 98% of sexual encounters. It means that 98% of people using condoms for a year will avoid unplanned pregnancies in that year.

Or, assuming you’re using them correctly and having sex about as often as these statisticians imagine, the length of time the average person would have to keep having regular safe sex before encountering a condom failure isn’t fifty sexual encounters, but fifty years.

I have been massively misunderstanding this for YEARS because of what seems like REALLY UNCLEAR COMMUNICATION AND UNHELPFULLY OBSCURE PHRASING, GUYS. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who finds that a totally counter-intuitive interpretation of the “98% effective” line. Did everybody but me already have this figured out? I mean, it’s less important that I understand this than almost anyone else, but still.

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Daughters in porn

This is a year past topical, as will many things be that I finally get around to blogging about, but it’s still relevant.

There are major problems and concerns with the porn industry, which better feminists than I continue to articulate all over the interwebs. People who work in that field but may not feel thrilled about it may need our support; it’s a riper area than many for exploitation, and the cultural context and gendered expectations should be borne in mind when considering the nature of anyone’s voluntary decision to be involved in sex work of any kind.

But fuck, if somebody likes their job, try being happy for them even if you find sex icky, and if somebody doesn’t like their job, maybe have some sympathy for them as an individual without generalising broadly about everyone working in the entire industry?

Be proud of your daughter even if she does porn. Be proud of your daughter because she does porn. Just love your kids and stop judging sex workers, dude.

(Incidentally, although it’s broadly not a bad article, a major oversight means that the headline is completely untrue. Many sex workers are not somebody’s daughter. Five bonus lateral thinking points if you can figure out how this is so. Wait, scratch that; negative ten basic reasoning points if you can’t.)

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A comedy skit about sex education, put together by a comedian and a small team of writers and researchers for a weekly half-hour comedy show, is way, way more informative, more helpful, more humane, and more truthful about sex, than what millions of American kids are being told by a national education system run by the government.

As much as this clip is great, it was preceded in the show by a horrifying summary of what passes for sex education in the States at the moment, including examples of what many school districts are currently showing to young people, which are virtually indistinguishable from that Mean Girls clip in terms of parodic levels of misinformation and scaremongering.

John Oliver continues to be one of the most important and worthwhile people on TV. I can’t think of anyone doing a better job of highlighting important and appalling things going on of genuine national importance and creating one of very few sources of investigative journalism actually worthy of the name.

Someone who’s pretty close though: David Wong on the Cracked podcast.

I’ve been pretty consistently impressed with that show for a while now, and with David Wong (aka Jason Pargin) in particular. For someone who describes himself as coming from a family with a big background in law enforcement and naturally inclined to lean toward supporting the police for that reason, I just listened to him talk for most of an hour-and-a-half episode, going into great detail and with statistical citations, on everything that is terrifyingly wrong with the US criminal justice system, and the kinds of things research has repeatedly proven it should be doing if it wanted to not be utterly abhorrent.

Okay, obviously I’m exaggerating a little there. He only had an hour and a half, he’d barely got started on how totally fucked up the system is. But it was a pretty damn impressive start.

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So let’s recap our first lesson in “not totally sucking as a person”, which it seems like some folk missed.

Making friendly contact with strangers, and engaging pleasantly with people you don’t know, is an important skill to develop. You might use it to make new friends, or maybe it’ll simply help you get along smoothly with some of the many people you’ll briefly encounter in the world, even if no lasting relationships are formed. It’s good that so many of you want to work on this and get some real-world practice.

But let’s look at an example of how this can go wrong.

Let’s say that you offer an unsolicited compliment to a woman you don’t know. You’re putting a random act of kindness out into the world, with a hope of brightening a stranger’s day with some positive words to boost her esteem. But, even though you’re just being nice, this woman doesn’t seem grateful. She ignores you, turns coldly away, shuns your offering, refuses to even acknowledge how nice you were being to her.

Now, if your response to this involves lecturing, berating, chastising, shaming, criticising, blaming, or bringing any negativity to bear on this woman at all for being unappreciative and unfriendly, then… Well, what can we say about your behaviour in that case? Any guesses, class?

It’s not very nice of you? Well, that’s partly right, but you can go further. In fact, if you act like this, you were never being nice to her in the first place.

You might think you were being nice. In all likelihood that’s the story you’ve told yourself about what happened and your motivations. But you’re lying to yourself.

If you did something nice for a stranger, but then stopped being nice and indignantly complained about how unjustly you were being treated the second you didn’t get what you wanted out of the interaction, then you weren’t actually doing something nice. You were being an asshole from the start.

Because what you’ve done there, you see, is decided that your feelings are the only thing that really matters, and that you’re owed something by this woman whose path has only crossed with yours at all because you’ve actively and uninvitedly injected yourself into her life. You’ve demanded that your benevolent intent be recognised as the only admissible truth, and that a complete stranger reward you with precisely the kind of interaction you deem appropriate, at a time of your choosing. What this stranger might want from life, and how she might be feeling, hasn’t come into your calculations at all – which is mutually exclusive with actually being nice to someone.

“But where’s the harm in just offering a sincere compliment intended to brighten someone’s day?” I can hear one or two of the slower learners among you still asking. “Maybe some cat-callers shout abuse and other things women might not want to hear, but I don’t deserve to get lumped in with them when I’m saying something flattering and non-threatening and just trying to be nice.”

Well first of all, this person didn’t ask for your opinion, they didn’t invite you to get involved, they don’t owe you shit, you don’t deserve shit, so get the fuck over yourself.

But you know what, you raise a good point there. Some people do shout abusive, threatening, hateful things at strangers – most commonly women – and some even escalate this abuse to physical assaults and violence. And while it’s a good sign that you can at least recognise these as being bad things to do, you’re not actually as completely different from those violent assholes as you might like to think.

One thing that many of those abusive, threatening, rapey assholes have in common is that, before they turned so abusive that it’s obvious even to you how unacceptable their behaviour is, they started off by offering some unsolicited but positive assessments of some aspect of this woman’s appearance or character, which were intended to be interpreted as a compliment.

And guess what? This is something that you and those abusive assholes have in common too!

Yes, yes; I’m sure you know that you’re not going to take things any further, that you’d never try and grope a woman or call her a slut for shunning your advances, no matter how rude she is when you were just trying to be nice. But she doesn’t know that.

That thing you’re doing, where you offer her a “compliment” to be “nice”? You look exactly like a lot of guys who turned out to be abusive violent assholes when you do that. You may not be an abusive violent asshole yourself, but that doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit in this situation. Especially when, as discussed earlier, you’re not really being nice.

Offering unsolicited opinions on a woman’s appearance or character, then complaining about her conduct and the unfairness with which you’ve been treated, is what those abusive assholes do. If you don’t want to be unfairly compared to that sort of person, don’t act exactly like them.

And here’s some proactive advice on how you can achieve that: try directing more criticism toward men who shout abuse, or send rape and death threats online, than you do toward women who’ve received more threats and abuse than you could know (because – quick reminder – you don’t actually know a fucking thing about them) and who sometimes aren’t too keen to make friendly conversation with a stranger as a result.

I’m sure you all think you obviously do that anyway – but is it really reflected in the way you talk about it? You might find, in practice, that the behaviour you spend the most time policing is that of women who don’t give men what they feel entitled to, while the abusive assholes tend to get a brief “yes obviously BUT” before returning to the main story of what women are doing wrong.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need to look any further. Your journey is at an end. The shithead was you all along.

And there’s the bell. Class dismissed. Do try not to make complete tits of yourselves, or I’ll drag you back in here for a remedial session.

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Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.

Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).

One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.

The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.

It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.

But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:

Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.

Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)

And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.

The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.

Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.

Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.

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I was asked recently if I’d be interested in submitting some of my thoughts on feminism, from the perspective of A Bloke, to a feminist blog collective thing being sub-edited by a pseudonymous friend. So I did.

It begins thusly:

Greetings, internet feminists!

Hi, I’m a man. You might remember me from such heteronormative activities as “dating” and “sex”.

Read the whole thing over at Everything But The Kitchen Sink.

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As you may have noticed, last Monday I went and got myself a wife. And things are all pretty nice. The wedding and ensuing consecutive mini-honeymoons are all worth gossiping about, and now that I’m back home with a computer and all the free time that comes with not having a wedding to plan, I’m getting myself back into writer mode. So, gossip ahoy-hoy.

Taking events in reverse chronological order, then, this post’s starting off with the London Nine Worlds convention, from which we returned yesterday. Two and a half days of geeks and sci-fi and fantasy and pop culture and room service. We’ve just bought tickets for 2014 and my wife is already making plans for how to dress me up next time, so I guess it must’ve gone kinda okay. A selection of things I took away from the weekend:

1. I’m a nerd.

(Or a geek, or whatever.)

My wife and I spent the last several days sitting in conference rooms and lecture halls, listening to learned and erudite discourse on such topics as: chaos theory and infinite monkeys; the legal challenges and implications resulting from the increased proliferation of robotics in everyday life; Hermione Granger’s credibility or lack thereof as a feminist icon; what conclusions can be drawn about plausible alien ecologies from our own planet’s evolutionary biology; and the restrictively binary mainstream perceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality, along with aspects of culture which tend to reinforce or subvert the dominant paradigms.

And we spent a non-trivial amount of money for the privilege and it was totally worth it.

I also bought a couple hundred Magic cards, a few urban fantasy novels, and a pixel-art necklace for my beloved – and this only after several very restrained tours of the vendor hall, gawping at all the shiny and reining in our impulses to fill our home with all the things.

These are not ways the majority of folk would be thrilled to spend their time, I think. I mean, I hang out almost exclusively with other nerds of one sort or another, in the parts of the world where I get to choose my own socialising schedule, so it might start to seem like swooning over Cory Doctorow is the kind of thing that everyone will immediately get. But really, it all puts me in something of a niche. I’m already thinking about how much of this detail I’ll end up skimming over when I go back to work next week and am quizzed on what I’ve been up to by my work colleagues. They’re not nerds.

2. I’m not that much of a nerd.

(Or maybe just not the same kind of nerd as some other nerds, maybe it’s not a matter of scale, or whatever.)

There’s a particular kind of geek/nerd behaviour I’ve witnessed a lot. The stereotypical nerd is a social misfit in everyday life, who doesn’t have much to say to all the normal people they’re surrounded by, and is largely inept at saying it. They’re an introvert, a loner, with little capacity for interaction with other humans and a tendency to shy away from situations where they might have to do so.

But what you actually see among a lot of nerds is a tendency to congregate eagerly with their own kind, and ample capacity to become extremely extroverted, expressive, and engaged with others, under the right circumstances. It’s really not that these people don’t like socialising, or are all painfully shy; they just don’t give a shit about football or whatever the hell the rest of you guys are talking about. Get them going on something actually interesting, though, and you’ll often have trouble shutting them up. (And you’ll encounter a similar proportion of obnoxious, aggressive dicks as can be found among the species as a whole.)

I really don’t do that one myself. I don’t simply have to join a crowd of the right people, my people, to suddenly find myself opening up and becoming a whole different, chatty, person, just because I finally have something in common with them. It’s not just the fact that muggles want to talk about football that I find off-putting and alienating. Even in subjects where I feel both interested and knowledgeable, I’m not always easy to draw into a conversation, depending on the circumstances (crowds and/or strangers being among the key factors).

Which I guess kinda sucks. I don’t have that sense of “coming home”, or suddenly being among friends, the way some people do at such geekfests. I can’t really imagine that a different sort of crowd ever would give me that feeling, either, because it’s not a matter of being among the “right people” that’s lacking here.

Having said that, there’s one related thing which strongly comes through from all the feedback that Nine Worlds has been receiving:

3. If you wanted a “safe space” for just about any minority interest or quirk, this was it.

For whatever reason (and I’m sure there are fascinating sociology papers discussing this somewhere), there seems to be a significant overlap between, say, reading comics/watching Doctor Who/playing board games/exploring steampunk/enjoying Tolkien/critically analysing Harry Potter, and possessing a not-completely-straightforward gender or sexual identity.

That’s a clunky way of phrasing my point. But there were a lot of people at this con dressing in ways not traditionally associated with their apparent gender in the mainstream world. And, if someone’s a stranger to you, but you happen to know that they’re way into My Little Pony, your estimate of how likely they are to shout transphobic abuse at you should go way down.

There was a whole track devoted to “Queer Fandom”, whose purpose was described as “celebrating and exploring LGBT themes, characters and creators throughout SFF media”. And even though my experience of the con had little overlap with any of their stuff, the general atmosphere of acceptance, welcoming, and camaraderie pervaded the convention as a whole. The idea of making it a friendly and safe space for people who wanted to dress, or wear their hair, or in any other way present themselves, in a fashion that might be controversial elsewhere, was built into the running of the con and its ethos.

Even refreshing the #nineworlds hashtag results now, I’m seeing more mentions of the phrase “safe space”. And it means a lot more coming from most of these Twitterfolk than it does from me. Because, y’know, I’m a straight white male. My odds of being “safe” in just about any environment amenable to human life are about as good as you could ask for.

For me, dressing myself comfortably – in a way that I feel truly reflects the person I consider myself to be – involves throwing on the nearest reasonably clean check shirt and cords that are lying around. It takes seconds, and the end result renders me entirely unremarkable. For some people, that’s not the case. They might want to use make-up, and hair dye, and creative outfits, and costumes, and personal accoutrements and ornamentation of all kinds, often in ways that don’t align with any conventional social demographic.

In its simplest form, this means that, if you were at Nine Worlds, you will likely have seen at least one bloke in a dress milling around. And that’s at the least inventive end of the scale.

And my general impression, based on the reports of actual blokes in dresses, among other people who lie outside of various social norms, is that they mostly felt safe and comfortable being themselves at this convention, in a way that starkly contrasts with their experiences in the world in general. Which is groovy.

Actually listening to other people’s personal accounts of such things is important. I mean, I know that to me everyone seemed nice and friendly, but then, someone massively racist or homophobic may have no reason not to be nice and friendly around me. But a brief wander outside my bubble serves as a reminder that, for some folk, it’s a genuine lifeline to have some space where you can just be yourself, without always wondering how long it’ll be before the next mocking catcall or physical abuse, and whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just keep lying to the world about who you are, for the sake of a peaceful life.

So, yeah. I support all of This Sort Of Thing, with very few reservations and a great deal of optimism for the future.

Also we had three nights in a hotel where you can just pick up the phone and ask them to bring you all the food on a trolley and they totally will and you don’t even have to get properly dressed or go outside or anything. How long have I failed to appreciate that that’s a thing?

More to follow, after a much shorter wait this time. I’m feeling back on the wagon now.

Edit: The aforementioned wife has also composed her own report of the weekend, which has a lot more description of the stuff that actually happened there. Also, pictures!

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