Your Partner Dating Lots Of People Is Less Scary Than You Think It Is

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When I see people talk about polyamory, one concern they often have is that the partner who’s more attractive (or female) will be out every night sleeping with a new person, while the partner who’s less attractive (or male) will spend all their nights alone crying into their bowl of ice cream while watching Netflix.

There is a grain of truth to this. In my experience, it’s very rare for everyone in a primary relationship to be dating exactly the same number of people. Lots of primary poly relationships include one partner who is dating four or five people or having a lot of casual sex, and another one who isn’t. And certainly it’s much easier to have casual sex if you’re more attractive or if you’re a woman.

A lot of people assume that this situation is naturally the sort of thing that makes the left-out partner miserable. They might feel insecure, like their partner is more attractive than they are; they might be envious of their partner’s relative level of sexual success; they might be jealous; they might feel humiliated. And I don’t want to say that those dynamics never happen.

But I think the level of distress caused by one’s partner dating lots of other people is often pretty low, assuming that the rest of the relationship is healthy. Obviously, people are often sad if their partners are neglecting them for other people, or won’t stick to their agreements, or want a less committed relationship than they want, or similar. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about sadness caused solely by your partner dating lots of people when you aren’t dating very many at all. And I do think that’s less common than a lot of monogamous people think. 

One reason this is true is that the number of people you date isn’t just related to how attractive you are: it’s also related to your extroversion and your pickiness.

Some people thrive on having lots of relationships: there’s nothing they love more than having a brunch date with Sally Saturday morning, grocery shopping followed by a long walk with Alex Saturday afternoon, and going out dancing with Josh Saturday evening– and then repeating it all on Sunday. For other people, this sounds like a newly discovered tenth circle of Hell.

Obviously, that second group of people are going to have way fewer partners.

I called this “extroversion”, but it’s not just about extroversion. It’s about how you choose to spend your time. Some people prioritize having lots of romantic partners and sex. Other people prioritize writing their novel, or having deep and rich platonic friendships, or maintaining open-source projects, or climbing the corporate ladder, or binge-watching Netflix. If you’re into writing novels, and your partner is into going out on lots of dates, you’re probably not going to be sad that you have fewer boyfriends than your partner does. You’re going to be like “great! He’s busy and not bugging me, so I can really dig into the edits on Chapter Three.”

And of course this is particularly an issue for casual sex. Lots of people don’t have much casual sex because they find casual sex unappealing. And many people are not at all jealous about not participating in their partner’s unappetizing and incomprehensible hobby.

Another factor that affects how many people you date is pickiness. I have a friend who, at any given time, has a crush on about half of the women he interacts with. Inevitably, whenever he meets someone new, two days later he’s PMing me to go “so-and-so is pretty.” Naturally, he is dating a rather absurd number of people.

Now, I don’t mean to insult my friend’s girlfriends, all of whom are lovely people the appeal of whom I entirely understand. I’m not saying “some of the people your slutty partner dates will be ugly as fuck” (although this is sometimes true). But if you are only interested in shy, petite, multilingual girls who enjoy tabletop roleplaying, love children, and never raise their voices, then you will be totally uninterested in your metamours who are tall, loud, outgoing, monolingual, and aggressively childfree and who think dice only come in six-sided. In my experience, it does not hurt nearly as much for your partner to date lots of people if all the people they’re dating are unappealing.

Moreover, there’s a certain fairness to it. You are aware that if you liked as many people as your partner does, you would be able to date as many people as they do. Your partner dates lots of people because they like lots of people; you don’t because you don’t.

In general, extroversion and pickiness matter more than attractiveness when explaining why one person is dating more people than their primary partner is. In general, with some exceptions for people with unusual tastes, people tend to date people who are about as attractive as they are. (And quite often if your primary is more conventionally attractive than you are but is super into you due to your unusual traits, you will be pleased to have scored such an attractive person and accepting of their increased romantic success.) So most of the difference within relationships is about extroversion and pickiness. 

I am not saying that there’s no such thing as jealousy in poly relationships– there is– nor am I saying that no poly person is ever insecure, neglected, or envious. But quite often when one person dates many more people than their partner does, it is because that person wants to date more people than their other partner does. The person with fewer partners might need more alone time, be putting energy into something other than dating, or simply have a hard time meeting people they’re interested in– and that means they’re dating exactly the number of people they actually want to date. 

Hermeneutical Injustice, Not Gaslighting

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I have regularly complained about misuse of the term “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments.

Unfortunately, the Internet has decided that instead “gaslighting” should be used as a synonym for concepts like “lying” or, in particularly irritating cases, “disagreeing with me.” As someone who was abused by gaslighting, I find this incredibly upsetting.

It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person: your ability to reason, your competence to figure out the truth, your capacity to remember things in a broadly accurate fashion even if you are sometimes fuzzy on details, your knowledge of your own feelings and thoughts and desires. And if your mind is unreliable… well, you’ll have to rely on someone else.

Gaslighting is already confusing and difficult to identify by its very nature, even when people haven’t decided to make the only word we have to refer to this very important concept mean “lying, but like I’m really upset about it.” If “gaslighting” refers to “lying,” it is difficult for people to name their abuse and recognize that what is happening to them is wrong.

(Honestly, using “gaslighting” to refer to someone disagreeing with you is itself kind of gaslight-y. Might want to check that out.)

Many people who want to misuse the term “gaslighting” should just suck it up and use a phrase like “blatantly lying” instead. However, I think sometimes people are gesturing for a concept that really isn’t covered by words like ‘lying.’ They’re gesturing for something structural, a harm done by society rather than by an individual; they’re gesturing for something oppressive, a dynamic related to their presence in a marginalized group; they’re gesturing for something that causes harm to your ability to reason and come to conclusions and trust your own self-knowledge, similarly to how gaslighting does, even if less severe and not perpetuated by a person.

In the name of not striking terms from others’ vocabulary without suitable replacement, I would like to suggest an alternative: hermeneutical injustice.

Hermeneutical injustice is a term invented by philosopher Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice. Hermeneutical injustice is the harm caused to a person when they have an experience, but do not have the concepts or frameworks they need to make sense of what their experience is. For example, a man who falls in love with a man, in a society where homosexuality is conceived of as a disgusting perversion with no true affection or love in it, experiences a hermeneutical injustice. A woman whose boss keeps plausibly-deniably touching her breasts and telling her that she has a great ass, before the invention of the concept of sexual harassment, experiences a hermeneutical injustice. A man forced into sex who has no concept that men can be raped experiences a hermeneutical injustice.

(Of course, not all cases of hermeneutical injustice are related to a social justice topic: trypophobes of the world suffered a minor hermeneutical injustice before we had a cultural understanding that, for some people, that particular pattern of holes is just horrible.)

The primary harm of hermeneutical injustice is, of course, that you can’t express your feelings or experiences. If you don’t have the concept of “transness” or “sexual harassment” or “misophonia,” you are going to sound like an idiot when you try to explain why something hurts you.

You: “That sound is just BAD, okay. It makes me want to KILL SOMEONE. I want to STAB OUT MY EARDRUMS.”
Them: “This is a kind of unreasonable reaction to forks scraping against a plate. Why do you feel that way?”
You: “I don’t KNOW it just SUCKS.”
Them: “Well, are you sure you’re not just exaggerating?”
You: “AARRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGH.”

Hermeneutical injustice also makes it harder to understand your own experiences. If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.

But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.

And if you’re harmed by hermeneutical injustice– if the concepts and narratives available don’t describe your experiences, and this makes you feel stupid and crazy and hysterical, and you internalize as descriptions of yourself statements that aren’t true because you don’t have a way of saying the things that are true— well, you might reach for the word “gaslighting” to describe the way it makes you feel. As a way of expressing that this is a very serious harm, that it’s driving you crazy, that your problem is not just lying or disagreement but something more fundamental.

And if you’re in that situation, I hope this essay resolved that piece of hermeneutical injustice, and therefore you can stop perpetuating hermeneutical injustice against me.

Basic Sex Education: A Review

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[My friend nextworldover wrote this as a Reddit comment in response to a person who grew up conservative Christian and did not know anything about sex. I thought it was an excellent explanation of how sex works and asked to post it as a guest post.]

People have sex for many reasons, the most common of which are pleasure, bonding, and reproduction. Stimulating erogenous zones (including genitals but also other sensitive areas on the body) feels pleasurable to most people, and can relieve sexual arousal. Sex is often an intimate and vulnerable experience, which many people find deepens their emotional bond with their romantic partner. Sex is also the way that we conceive children.

Pleasure: When aroused, the genitals generally become engorged. For a penis, this is visible as an erection. For a vulva, this is visible as the labia and clitoris swelling and appearing flushed. Arousal also frequently comes with secretion of lubricating fluids. For a vulva, this fluid will originate near the entrance of the vaginal canal, within the labia minora. For a penis, it will secrete from the urethra. Here‘s a diagram of how the penis and vulva develop from the same structures. This might help you get some idea of how the anatomy fits together.

People have differing amounts of desire for sex and differing patterns of arousal. Some people have high libidos, and frequently find themselves desiring sex. Some have low libidos, and only want sex occasionally. Some people have none, and never desire sex. Some people have spontaneous arousal, and find themselves easily aroused to sexual desire regardless of context. Some people have responsive arousal, and only become aroused once they are in a conducive context. Libido can be affected by age, sex, health, life stress, medication, mental health, and more.

There are many things people can do together to cause each other sexual pleasure. Some popular ones include: masturbation, fondling, making out, manual sex (handjobs, fingering), oral sex (blowjobs, eating out), penis-in-vagina sex, and anal sex. Many people find that there are scenarios, activities, body parts, or objects that assist in their sexual arousal or pleasure. Most of these can be explored one one’s own or with a willing partner. A common sexual aid is pornography, which can provide mental stimulation. It can come in many forms, including writing, drawings, games, photos, audio, and videos. Many people enjoy consuming pornography by themselves or with partners as part of their sex lives. Another common sexual aid is vibrators, which can provide physical stimulation. Vibrators can be applied to any erogenous zone, including but not limited to the nipples, clitoris, vagina, penis, anus, and prostate, and often they are designed to be more effective for use with a particular one. Many people enjoy using vibrators on themselves or each other as part of their sex lives. There are many, many, many forms of sexual aids, catering to a wide array of tastes.

Here is a diagram of common human erogenous zones. Many people like to touch these areas on their body, or stimulate them with objects, or have other people touch them. Due to differing physiology and psychology, every person has a different set of preferences about how they prefer to be touched. Some places that feel good to some people will feel uninteresting or unpleasant to others. Likewise, some sorts of touch that feel good to some people will feel uninteresting or unpleasant to others. The best way to discover what you prefer is to experiment with different things. The best way to discover what someone else prefers is to ask them. However, communicating this sort of thing can be difficult, people may not know what they want, and executing a particular action in the desired way may require practice. For this reason, the experience of sex usually improves as you gain more familiarity with your own preferences and those of your partner.

Bonding: Many people find that when they have sex with someone, they feel more emotionally connected to that person. Having sex is a very intimate experience during which people often feel very vulnerable. Having sex in a way they feel comfortable with in a safe environment with a person they trust is considered by many one of the most relationship-affirming activities they do. Many people have insecurities about their appearance, performance, or general desirability as a sexual partner. During sex is a time when acceptance or rejection is likely to hit someone especially hard. Some people require being in an intimate relationship in order to enjoy sex at all. Some people enjoy having sex outside of intimate relationships. Sex does not always engender feelings of closeness with the other person. Some people find that sex outside of a relationship does not provoke much emotional response in them, or that no sex does. Sex can also be frustrating, upsetting, or traumatic. Feeling unable to communicate what you want, or feeling that it cannot be achieved, can be frustrating. Feeling rejected by the other person, or like they don’t care about what you want, can be upsetting. Sex with someone you don’t trust or feel safe with, or with someone you trust but who abuses that trust, can be traumatic. Sexual trauma often arises when people have nonconsensual sexual experiences – this often involves feeling violated and ashamed. The best way to avoid causing sexual trauma to yourself or your partner is to progress slowly and check in often about what you’re each comfortable with, and to care for each other’s needs, wants, and boundaries.

Someone’s sexual orientation refers to which people they are attracted to. Someone who is heterosexual finds people of the other gender attractive, someone who is homosexual finds people of their own gender attractive, someone who is bisexual is attracted to people of more than one gender, and someone who is asexual is not sexually attracted to anyone. These are terms people use to try to describe their experiences, and many people find that these descriptors might not perfectly describe their sexuality. For example, someone might be mostly attracted to men, but also much less frequently attracted to women. Someone might be attracted only to people with breasts, regardless of their gender. Someone might like engaging in some sex acts with women, and others with men. Someone might find that they are capable of physically enjoying sex with any gender, but that it only gives them an emotionally satisfying experience with one. Sexuality is rarely completely clear cut, and the words someone uses as a shorthand for themself are just that.

Reproduction: Sex is the most common way that people conceive children. Sperm are produced in the testicles and are ejaculated from the urethra of the penis along with seminal fluid. When introduced to the vaginal canal, sperm can join with an egg and fertilize it. This can also be performed via artificial insemination. Eggs are released from the ovaries at a rate of approximately one per month according to a hormonal cycle. This hormonal cycle also regulates the buildup of endometrium in the uterus. The egg travels from the fallopian tube to the uterus, and if not fertilized, will pass out of the uterus with the endometrium as part of menstruation. Menstrual fluid usually passes out of the body over the course of around 5 days, during which time people generally use one of a variety of hygiene products to absorb or collect and discard it. Some of the more popular options include pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. Menstruation can involve the uterus cramping as it expels the fluid, as well as a variety of other symptoms such as headache, diarrhea, bloating, irritability, sensitivity, increased or decreased libido, breast tenderness, fatigue, and more.

In vitro fertilization involves fertilizing the egg outside of the body, and then placing it into the uterus to implant. If the egg is fertilized, it will implant into the endometrium as an embryo and develop into a fetus. Pregnancy in humans lasts around 40 weeks and is generally divided into three trimesters. Here is a chart of fetal development over the course of pregnancy. With current medical technology, after about 32 weeks of development, babies are generally capable of surviving outside the womb, though they may have some health complications. Babies can be born vaginally, in which case the opening of the cervix must dilate large enough for the baby to pass through the vaginal canal. This is generally considered to be an extremely painful experience for the person giving birth. They can also be born via C-section, which involves performing abdominal surgery to cut open the uterus and extract the baby directly. Because it is a fairly major surgery, it can also be extremely painful, and require time for the incision to heal. After birth, the cervix and vaginal canal may undergo some changes – these may be minor changes in shape, or may involve more major injuries, such as tearing. For most people, the vaginal muscles regain their tone within weeks of birth.

For those who wish to avoid pregnancy, there are many options of varying ease of use, efficacy, and side effects. Here is a chart that covers many of the more common methods.

Condoms are one of the most popular and effective forms of birth control. A condom is a very thin latex sheath which covers the penis, catching semen and preventing sperm from entering the vagina. Condoms also protect against a variety of sexually transmissible infections. Condoms are convenient because they are widely available, inexpensive, quick to apply, and highly effective when used properly. The drawbacks of condoms include reduced sensitivity and variance in people’s ability to reliably use them correctly. A more reliable and permanent form of birth control is the vasectomy, which is a minimally invasive procedure that involves severing the vas deferens, the tube through which sperm travel from the testicles to the penis. Benefits include that once the procedure has been performed, it will remain effective until reversed. It is frequently although not always reversible. Drawbacks include pain or discomfort during the procedure and potential permanency.

For those with ovaries, a highly popular form of birth control is birth control pills. These pills, when taken correctly, alter the hormonal cycle to make hormone levels more consistent, which prevents ovulation from occurring. They also frequently help with the various symptoms of menstruation, making them popular even among people who are not sexually active. Different formulations of the pill exist, and have somewhat different side effect profiles. The pill can generally be obtained by prescription after discussing it with your doctor. Depending on various factors, such as whether it is covered by insurance, it can either be very inexpensive or quite expensive. The pill is convenient because it does not require use during sexual activity and is highly effective. Drawbacks include that it must be taken daily to be effective, and that it can cause a variety of hormone related symptoms, such as those listed above for menstruation, and others, such as increased risk of blood clots and stroke. A third highly popular form of birth control is the intrauterine device, which is a small piece of plastic which a doctor can insert into the uterus. There are both hormonal and nonhormonal versions, with different side effect profiles. It is convenient because it is long-lasting, reversible, extremely difficult to use incorrectly, highly effective, and, in the case of the hormonal IUD, it can alleviate menstrual symptoms or prevent menstruation entirely. Drawbacks include the same ones as hormonal birth control, if it is the hormonal IUD, as well as pain during insertion, heavier menstrual flow, and more painful menstrual cramps. There are many other forms of birth control available, including the shot, the ring, the implant, and more. Each comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

Although this is a long post, it is only a cursory introduction to the topic of sex. If you are curious to learn more, there are many online resources:
Scarleteen is a popular, well-maintained, and informative sex ed website.
Oh Joy Sex Toy is an online comic that reviews sex toys and produces sex ed materials.
Archive of Our Own is an online repository of amateur fiction. A lot of it is erotic in nature.
PornHub is a popular site for video porn.
The Guttmacher Institute publishes research on topics of sex and sexuality.

Thirteen Things I Hate About Cthulhu Mythos Stories

I have acquired a special interest in the Cthulhu Mythos lately, so I’ve been reading a lot of short stories set in the Mythos. Some of them, particularly the ones by Lovecraft himself, are very good. Many of them… are less so. Here is a list of (unlucky number thirteen) items that I would like to never see in a Mythos story ever again.

1. “Is the Mythos real… or am I having a psychotic break?” is the worst plotline.

Themes of insanity are a core part of the Mythos, and one of the things that draws me to stories set in it. I love stories of someone going mad from the revelation. However, “am I insane or is this all really happening?” is a boring plot.

Obviously it is going to turn out that the Mythos is real, because you published your story in Weird Tales and not Tales Of Unusually Complex and Rich Psychotic Breaks. The reader is not in any way in suspense about whether the Great Race of Yith actually exists in the world of your story. It is not a reveal when it turns out that (gasp) the Great Race of Yith actually existed all along!

The real problem with these stories is that, as long as the Mythos existing is in question, you can’t explore what it means that the Mythos exists. Do you try to learn as much as you can– even at the cost of your sanity– or do you try to push it all out of your mind? How do you return to normal life having seen the true nature of the universe? Does everyday existence feel meaningless and pointless in the face of the vastness of the cosmos? How do you gather the strength to fight a battle against the eldritch horrors that you know humanity is inevitably going to lose? What are you willing to sacrifice to get humanity a little bit more time?

These are the interesting questions that you cannot address as long as whether the Mythos exists at all is in question.

2. “The protagonist’s best friend who doesn’t believe in the Mythos” is the worst viewpoint character.

The Skeptical Best Friend plotline has all the flaws of the “is the Mythos real… or am I having a psychotic break?” plotline, plus some extra for flavor.

The primary issue with the Skeptical Best Friend as viewpoint character is that there’s basically one story you can tell with the Skeptical Best Friend:

  1. The protagonist explains whatever Mythos thing is happening.
  2. The skeptical best friend dismisses the protagonist as insane.
  3. The protagonist gets devoured.
  4. The skeptical best friend wonders if perhaps… it cannot be… but perhaps the Mythos is real…

By the very nature of the Skeptical Best Friend, they can’t desperately try to escape the monster pursuing them though they know getting caught is inevitable, or fear their inevitable transformation into an inhuman creature, or rend their sanity pursuing dark truths, or do much of anything.

I realize that you are trying to give the reader, who is themself perhaps skeptical of the existence of magic, someone to project on. But I think a reader who picks up a volume of Cthulhu Mythos stories is capable of empathizing with an investigator, a cultist, a sorcerer, a hapless victim, or someone else who knows that the supernatural is real and therefore is capable of taking actions about it.

3. No more writer protagonists.

Perhaps following the dictum of “write what you know,” writers of Mythos tales have an unusual tendency to make the protagonists authors, often of stories published in Weird Tales. However, I am absolutely positive that every now and again someone encounters the occult and the eldritch who is not an author. I would like to get to read their stories occasionally too.

4. H. P. Lovecraft should not exist in universe as a character whose short stories are entirely accurate descriptions of what happened in the real world, unless you have a REALLY good explanation.

This is such a specific thing to be in so many Mythos stories, but it recurs a lot and I am baffled by the implications here. What do the readers of Weird Tales think about Lovecraft? He takes actually existing Prohibition raids on small towns and disastrous Antarctic expeditions and… pretends that they’re about weird fish monsters and shoggoths? What? Wouldn’t a reader of Weird Tales think that was incredibly offensive to the people who died?

It also raises many questions about Lovecraft himself. He knows the secret forbidden truths that destroy men’s sanity and chooses to… write fantasy stories about them? Why? Why isn’t he at least writing nonfiction? And then other people are like “hm, this horror story published in Astounding Stories seems like a credible source about the history of Innsmouth”?

You may have Lovecraft be a character in your story if you are addressing these questions. Otherwise, it just destroys my immersion.

5. Christianity should be false.

There are many horror subgenres which can reasonably contain demons, Satanists, and Black Masses. Cosmic horror is not one of them. If demons exist, then it implies that God exists, which implies that the creator of the universe notices each sparrow and cares about each human individually and incarnated as a human to die for our sins. This is antithetical to the entire concept of cosmic horror, which is that we are irrelevant in the face of the universe.

“Satan but no God” is annoying enough, but can be handwaved away as Satan being a Mask of Nyarlathotep or something. More irritating is Christian symbols such as the sign of the cross having power against eldritch horrors. If the sign of the cross defends you against an eldritch horror, then the universe is overseen by an all-loving and all-powerful deity that wants nothing more than to be with you forever in Heaven. This is just completely thematically inappropriate for the Cthulhu Mythos.

6. Do not systematize the horrors beyond our comprehension.

Naturally, humans are going to try to create taxonomies, to predict the Great Old Ones’ behavior, and generally to do empiricism to the cosmic horrors. That’s what humans are about. But our systems should be, at best, abstractions over a more complex reality too vast and too terrible to fit inside any human mind.

We should not be capable of knowing which of the Elder Gods are allies and which are enemies, which had children together, what their goals are, or how they are pursuing their goals. Any time we come up with a system, it should be obvious that the system is at best representing one small part of a more complicated reality. If something is supposed to be a horror beyond our comprehension, we should not be able to understand it.

(Shoutout to the podcast The Magnus Archives, which while non-Mythos does this very well. Highly recommended to all fans of cosmic horror.)

7. No wars of good versus evil, DERLETH.

August Derleth had one good idea, which is that the Cthulhu Mythos should be its own thing instead of just a tendency for Lovecraft to reference his other stories when writing fiction. Then, satisfied, Derleth retired from having good ideas for the rest of his life.

The Cthulhu Mythos should not be a battle between the evil Great Old Ones and the good Elder Gods. Cosmic horrors are beyond all human notions of morality, because they are fundamentally inhuman and incomprehensible.

8. NO ELEMENTAL ASSOCIATIONS, DERLETH

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the Great Old Ones lived in harmony. Then everything changed when Cthugha attacked.

Seriously, why would you decide that Hastur needs to be an elemental spirit of air? This is the Mythos, not a New Age shop. When I hear “Hastur is the elemental spirit of air,” I immediately imagine a nice hippie lady with a floral dress and a Tarot deck who wants to read my aura and unblock my chakras. Then I think about the dozens and dozens of mediocre and entirely non-horrific fantasy novels which have used elemental associations. Then I start asking myself why Galen was right about the secret underlying nature of the universe. Galen was not in any way an occultist and also he thought the uterus was a scrotum turned inside out. Why does he know about the basic four categories which govern the Great Old Ones themselves?

If you must have elemental associations, you can take a page out of Trail of Cthulhu’s book and make Cthulhu the elemental spirit of gravity instead.

9. Make your tomes in some way different from the Necronomicon.

Insufficient differentiation is a problem in the Mythos in general. There are quite a lot of Great Old Ones where it is unclear how they are at all different from Azathoth or Cthulhu. But this is less objectionable because maybe our limited mortal minds just can’t understand the exact distinction between Gol-Goroth and Tsathoggua.

On the other hand, our limited mortal minds can understand books. And every Mythos author has decided to add their own tome, the dread Whatever with the yellowing pages that is probably in Latin or Greek or Arabic or something and that contains secrets humankind was not meant to know. However, most of these tomes could be easily replaced with the Necronomicon and nothing of value would be lost.

The problem is that, perhaps to maintain flexibility, the authors do not specify what sort of information is in their tomes. But that means that the books get rather same-y after a while. The solution is to differentiate. Maybe this tome specializes in the secrets of necromancy: speaking to, summoning, and resurrecting the dead. Maybe it is the holy text of one particular cult and has little on any Great Old Ones the cult doesn’t worship. Perhaps it is a work of astrology that focuses on knowing exactly when the stars are right. Perhaps it is a history of the Black Pharaoh’s reign in Egypt. There are a lot of interesting options to make your tome unique.

10. Before you describe something as an unknowably evil horror, check that it is actually an unknowably evil horror, and not instead a totally knowable horror.

I understand that it is a genre convention that there are unknowable horrors from beyond time. We can describe the protagonist’s reaction, but the English language is insufficient to convey the enormity and majesty of the Great Old Ones. And I love it when authors describe seemingly mundane items– like the tiara in Shadow Over Innsmouth– as being alien and horrific in a way the narrator simply can’t put words to. The idea that we simply cannot comprehend most of what is happening in the universe is fundamental to the Mythos.

But before you invoke this trope, you need to check whether your horror is actually indescribable, like a Deep One’s tiara or Shub-Niggurath, or in fact it is perfectly describable, like a severed hand crawling around on its own. Severed hands crawling around on their own are gross and freaky, but I feel like I am capable of visualizing such a hand and understanding why I would be horrified if I saw one. If your narrator is telling me endlessly how spooky the hand is, I’m not going to be scared. I’m just going to be bored.

11. You should not write entire paragraphs in italics.

Italicizing an entire paragraph does not make it scarier. It just makes you seem worried that your writing won’t stand on its own so you have to use typography to indicate to the reader that this is the scary part–!

12. No long racist screeds.

Look, I am a reasonable person here. I am not demanding an end to miscegenation horror in the Mythos. I can accept that I am going to have to put up with a certain number of references to barbaric primitive tribes, Negro savages, and the natural strength and courage of the Aryan race. This is what happens when you like a fandom started by a racist in the 1930s. Society marches on.

However, I feel that when I am picking up a Cthulhu Mythos story, less than twenty percent of it should be composed of sympathetic characters discussing the latest cutting-edge findings of scientific racism. In general, if you place a Mythos story and the chatlogs of an alt-right chatroom side by side, I should be able to distinguish them in some way other than the number of times the speakers say the word “cuck.”

(Lovecraft gets a bad rap for racism but honestly the worst offender here in my opinion is Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft does not have any stories nearly as bad as The Children of the Night.)

13. No takes on the Mythos that are exclusively “Lovecraft is racist.”

I am stirring up a hornet’s nest here, I realize. But there’s a lot of really great material in the Mythos. And a lot of the nuggets of gold are there on the ground for anyone to pick up, because instead of mining them everyone else has spent the past ninety years writing about Skeptical Best Friends and making Cthulhu a water spirit.

It is baffling to me why so many people have looked at all of the untapped material here and decided to go with writing books about how Lovecraft is really racist.

I agree! Lovecraft was a racist person and this pervades the entire Mythos. As fans of the Mythos, we should acknowledge this. I am not opposed to books exploring the racial themes of the Mythos existing. But I think that we should explore all the other fascinating material that hasn’t really been touched on. What is it like to grow up as a member of the cult of Cthulhu? Why do people worship the Great Old Ones (and, no, “insanity” is not a good answer)? What is it like to be a Deep One hybrid and slowly transform into something repulsive and alien? How do investigators cope with the trauma of living in a cosmic horror setting? How does a person readjust to normal life after being captured by the Great Race of Yith? What clever schemes can you come up with to elude the Hounds of Tindalos? There’s so much potential to explore themes of trauma and abuse and complicity and neurodivergence and wonder at the tremendous scale of the universe.

Sure, write your book about how Lovecraft is racist. But do other stuff with the Mythos too.

Sanity House Rules for Call of Cthulhu 7E

These are my house rules for handling Sanity in Call of Cthulhu 7e. Most of the rules are not strictly speaking new rules; the mechanics basically work the same. However, I have rewritten and clarified the fluff, and made some things simpler. I believe my changes make the sanity system into a simple yet flexible system for handling trauma.

Losing Sanity

In my version, the Call of Cthulhu sanity system specifically handles trauma. Characters who have other neurodivergences do not start with a lower sanity score. Their experiences are roleplayed out and do not interact with the Sanity system. (This includes characters with compulsions, fears, anxieties, or addictions which are not caused by trauma.)

Conversely, traumatized characters may begin with Phobias or Manias at the start of the game. (I have chosen to capitalize Phobia and Mania when referring to the game mechanics, so that they are clearly different from phobias and manias the mental health conditions.)

The Call of Cthulhu states that you can lose Sanity from non-Mythos sources, but does not provide guidance about how much Sanity you lose from various non-Mythos sources. I drew inspiration from Trail of Cthulhu’s Stability system to create the following chart (before the slash is Sanity loss on a success, after is Sanity loss on a failure):

0/1D2: Find mutilated animal corpse.

0/1D3: Find corpse or body part; witness a killing.

1/1D3: A human being tries to harm you; car accident; witness torture; psychotic break not caused by insanity.

0/1D4: Non-threatening omens; grisly corpse or crime scene; human being attacks you with intent to kill; you kill someone in a fight.

0/1D4+1: See many corpses or a large battle; find out a loved one or Significant Person has died; week in solitary confinement; bitten by a vampire.

1/1D4+1: Kill someone in cold blood; torture someone; find the corpse of a loved one or Significant Person; attacked by a loved one or Significant Person (who wouldn’t attack you normally); threatening omen or magical effect.

0/1D6: Witness death of friend or Significant Person; torture someone for an hour or longer; discover you have committed accidental cannibalism; awaken trapped in a coffin; see “normal” supernatural creature (mi-go, deep one, ghoul, skeleton, etc); see Bast

0/1D6 +1: Talk to someone you know to be dead; be possessed by an outside force.

1/1D6+1: Witness gruesome death of friend or Significant Person; kill friend or Significant Person; undergo torture.

0/1D8: See Yig or a zombie; see a werewolf change shape.

0/1D10: Undergo severe torture.

1/1D10: See a corpse rise from its grave; see Father Dagon or Mother Hydra.

1D3/1D10: see Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, Hound of Tindalos, King in Yellow, etc.

1D6/1D10: see shuggoth.

2/2D10+1: Witness giant severed head falling from the sky, or similar gruesome, incomprehensible, supernatural event.

1D3/1D20: see Gla’aki

1D10/1D100: See Great Cthulhu, Azathoth, Hastur, Nyaralathotep, Shub-Niggurath, etc.

Because of the increased number of things the PCs can lose sanity from, I have expanded monster sanity limits to apply to all discrete sources of sanity loss. (That is, in one scenario, you can lose no more than 4 Sanity from being attacked by a human with intent to kill.)

I think the list also helps calibrate exactly how bad seeing Mythos creatures are: even seeing a creature as relatively ordinary as a Deep One is as mind-scarring as torturing someone for more than an hour.

Going Insane

I typically give my players control over their actions when insane. While I would take over if they abused the privilege, I find that the depth and richness of playing an insane character more than compensates for the risk that a power gamer would declare themself to have a Phobia of oceans when the entire game takes place in the Sahara Desert. 

Insanity in Call of Cthulhu has five mechanical effects: bouts of madness; Phobias and Manias; delusions; corruption of backstory elements; and different results of fumbles.

I do require my players to roll on the appropriate table to determine their behavior when they have a bout of madness. I think the loss of control helps cement the helplessness of insanity and (unlike the other insanity-related tables in the game) the bout of madness table is rather good.

Corrupting backstory elements also works well following the rules as written, although again I allow my players to corrupt their own backstory elements.

Phobias and Manias should not be understood as literal phobias and literal manias. The examples in the book are at best bland and at worst nonsensical. (Who responds to trauma by acquiring a special interest in trains?)  Instead, we should understand a Phobia as anything that the character avoids because of their trauma, and a Mania as anything that the character seeks out because of their trauma.

Interpreted in this way, the Phobias and Manias system can accommodate a wide range of reactions to trauma depending on the experiences and personality of the individual character. Phobias do not all need to be fears: anorexia may be modeled mechanically as a Phobia of food, and hypersensitivity to noises may be modeled as a Phobia of loud noises. Some fears may be more conceptual than the ones presented in the book: for example, a religious character may have a Phobia of going to hell because of the evil deeds they have performed.

Similarly, a Mania can be any number of different things. Some Manias will be compulsive behavior, like rocking back and forth while muttering to yourself or being unable to stop writing out quotes from the Necronomicon on the walls. (Some compulsive behavior, like constant twitching, is in my opinion best handled through corruption of the Description backstory element.) Some Manias may be attempts to keep yourself safe: for example, a Mania for sitting with your back to the wall so no one can sneak up on you or a Mania for carrying a gun with you wherever you go. Other Manias may, again, be more conceptual: a Mania for making sure that everyone you love is safe, for example, or a Mania for being liked by everyone you encounter so they don’t hurt you, or a Mania for never making anyone angry. Some Manias may be coping mechanisms or ways to numb overwhelming feelings: for example, addictions, alcoholism, compulsive sex, self-harm, risky behavior such as skydiving or reckless driving, religion, or overspending are all good Manias.

Because of the diversity of potential Phobias and Manias, I suggest the Keeper or the player (whoever will be choosing the Phobia or Mania) spend some time in advance thinking about what Phobias or Manias are appropriate for the character, so that the game doesn’t stall while they’re trying to think of one immediately after seeing Great Cthulhu.

Delusions are one of the most fun rules in Call of Cthulhu. The Keeper is permitted to lie to the players about their characters’ perceptions and the results of rolls. I encourage Keepers to pay attention to the players’ corrupted backstory elements, Phobias, Manias, and the triggers of their insanity to figure out appropriate delusions. Do not consider yourself limited to the examples in the book, which mostly involve hallucinating Mythos horrors. Instead, consider: should a successful Psychology roll tell the PC that that NPC secretly hates them? Should that Spot Hidden check reveal that an unarmed stranger is secretly holding a gun? Should Listen enable you to overhear people talking behind your back? There are lots of excellent opportunities to mimic the cognitive distortions associated with untreated trauma.

Finally, insane characters receive different results on failed pushed rolls or on fumbles: a sane character who fumbles a Jump check might fall off the cliff, while an insane character will acquire a delusion that they can fly. This is profoundly stupid and in my opinion takes away from the somber and horrific tone of Call of Cthulhu. I am baffled about why traumatized people apparently cannot fall off cliffs. I suggest that the Keeper keep the character’s insanity in mind when deciding on results of a fumble or a failed pushed roll, but otherwise be willing to give the same results they do to a sane character.

Regaining Sanity

Call of Cthulhu has an endearing and heartwarming faith in the capabilities of the 1920s psychiatric establishment to heal trauma. For this reason, I have modified the rules heavily.

In my interpretation, Psychoanalysis is no longer the skill of performing Freudian psychoanalysis on patients. Instead, Psychoanalysis is the skill of helping traumatized people recover from their trauma, usually learned through trial and error or personal experience. For this reason, Psychoanalysis is now an occupational skill for members of the clergy (replacing Listen). Many other characters may take Psychoanalysis with a reasonable justification: for example, the character who has Psychoanalysis in my current game is a Tarot card reader. 

Similarly, indefinite insanity is no longer cured by spending time in asylums or under psychiatric care. Instead, indefinite insanity is cured by spending a month in a quiet, safe, comfortable location where nothing especially stressful happens. This may be an asylum, if the asylum is doing its job; however, your house back at home is just as good.

I didn’t change the rules for backstory connections, but I’d like to express how much I like them as a way of modeling recovery from trauma. The PCs regain sanity (that is, coping ability) through spending time with things and people that matter to them. The system reflects the diversity that actual traumatized people have in their self-care techniques: I have PCs that regain sanity from telling stories, performing corde lisse, playing music, talking to their brother, and curling up in a corner while wearing a very large jacket with lots of pockets. There are really great roleplaying opportunities in the PCs responding to experiencing violence by each seeking out their own tools for self-care.

But as you become more traumatized, these supports become more difficult for you to access. You’re more likely to fail rolls to recover sanity if your sanity is already low, and the corruption of your backstory elements means you have fewer and fewer things you can really rely on to comfort you. Experiencing extreme trauma can force you into a cycle it is hard to escape from.

Tomes

Normally, in Call of Cthulhu, you automatically lose sanity as soon as you read a tome. However, I am running a version of the Alexandrian Remix of Eternal Lies adapted to Call of Cthulhu. (Players, DO NOT click that link.) In this remix, the characters are supposed to read sixteen books. Following the rules as written, reading sixteen Mythos tomes is going to drive even the sanest PCs mad from the revelation, which makes the remix unplayable.

The fix is simple. Tomes now function like any other source of sanity loss, and you make a Sanity check every time you read them. The Sanity loss given in the Keeper’s Handbook is the Sanity you lose on a failed check. However, if you study a tome fully during downtime, you will automatically lose the Sanity cost of reading it. 

Following the Alexandrian’s example, I incentivized my PCs rereading the tomes by giving them bonus dice to certain Library Use and other research rolls when consulting particular tomes. (For example, a tome about Nyarlathotep might give you a bonus die to all research involving Nyarlathotep.) The most powerful tomes with the most useful bonus dice have the highest Sanity loss.

To adapt the Trail of Cthulhu tome rules to Call of Cthulhu, I implemented a ‘skimming’ rule. If the PCs skim a book, they make a Sanity check, get a handout with a general sense of the book’s contents, and usually know which research rolls they would get bonus dice to by consulting it. However, they do not gain Cthulhu Mythos or spells, which require further study and loss of SAN.

Strawmanny Questions About Genital Preference, Part Two

[source]

6) are people who are only attracted to others of the same sex morally obligated to feel ashamed of this?

You are not actually morally obligated to feel ashamed of anything.

7a) if penises are female genitals, why do trans women experience physical dysphoria?

So there are two answers to this question.

First, many trans people experience physical dysphoria as the primary symptom of their transness. It’s not that they are upset about not being women; it is that they want a vagina and breasts and an estrogen-dominant hormone system, and it turns out if you try to obtain all those things while insisting you’re a man a bunch of people are going to look at you funny. You can come up with various theories for why this is, but we don’t really understand why people are trans.

Second, different people have different feelings about their body’s sexed characteristics. You can see this in cis people. Some cis women feel that pregnancy and giving birth is a definitively female thing, the miracle of creating life, a source of deep connection to all other birthing women throughout history and a beautiful affirmation of their body’s strength and power. Some cis women read that previous sentence and strongly considered a home hysterectomy with a rusty spoon.

More broadly, different cis women have different feelings about womanhood. Some women feel a sense of connection to admirable women of the past, like they’re all on the same team and in some sense share achievements. Some women enjoy chivalry or gendered flirtation. Some women are proud of specifically being a woman in math or science. Some women love being mothers specifically; their sense of womanhood is connected to having children. Some women’s experience of womanhood is suffering: sexual harassment, the fear of sexual violence, unfair divisions of labor, and entitled men. Some women like their clothes to make them feel cute and adorable; others, sexy and enticing; others, handsome and butch; still others would prefer their clothes not to send any gendered messages at all, thank you. And some women would prefer not to interact with gender at all and wish that it would just go away and people would stop assigning gendered meanings to skirts, raising kids, or being a mathematician.

You can say that this is bad and in a perfect feminist utopia that no women would have any feelings about their womanhood other than the Approved Feminist Feelings ™. Setting aside for a moment whether that would be either good or possible, it is clearly not true in the present day. You wouldn’t go around to all cis women and go “actually, it is wrong to be proud of being a woman in math, the Approved Feminist Feeling is that you are not allowed to care about this” or “actually, you need to appreciate the way your menstrual period connects you to the cycle of the moon, because it is the Approved Feminist Feeling”– at least I hope not. Can we assign the same standards to trans women that we do to cis women?

Trans women also have a range of different feelings about their body’s sexed characteristics. Some trans women are distressed by having a body part so closely associated with men. Some trans women like their penises and are happy to be women with dicks. Some trans women disliked their penises when they functioned in the typical fashion, but when they went on HRT they traded erections for multiple orgasms and now they’re okay with the situation. Some trans women dislike their dicks but have made peace with them. Some trans women don’t care about their dicks for themselves, but would like to have receptive PIV or date people who aren’t attracted to penises or otherwise do something that a vagina is helpful for.

Penises are typically male body parts. Any woman is going to have complicated feelings about having typically male body parts; just ask any cis woman who grows facial hair! We do not typically go up to cis women and go “some women grow facial hair, so why are you unhappy about having facial hair? You should be comfortable letting your mustache grow naturally and should stop waxing it.” So I think we should have similar attitudes towards trans women.

7b) why is sex reassignment surgery called ‘gender affirmation surgery’?

We live in a culture where penises are strongly associated with men and vaginas with women. One could imagine a culture in which that is not true (perhaps a transhumanist world with easy genderswapping?) but in this world it is.

For this reason, many women with penises will find it gender-affirming to no longer have a penis. Again, cis women have a variety of feelings about having sexed body parts typically associated with men; why wouldn’t trans women have a similar diversity of feelings?

7c) why do we encourage surgery rather than encouraging trans people to make peace with their bodies and overcome the cissexism they’ve internalized that tells them that their genitals don’t match their gender?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that I could make peace with my body and overcome my cissexism through a year of therapy. That would cost about $6500, an hour of my time every week for therapy plus transit time, and maybe twenty minutes a day of therapy homework.

Or I could get surgery and fix the problem. My top surgery cost about three thousand dollars, I had two days of sleeping a lot, five days of taking it easy, and I was completely back to my normal activities a week later. And then my top dysphoria went away permanently. 

One of these seems significantly less costly than the other. Like, more power to you if you want to try the therapy approach, but surgery’s great. I wish I could fix all my mental health problems this easily!

Some trans communities are toxic, but most communities I’m in don’t encourage or discourage surgery. They lay it out as one of many possible options for treating dysphoria. That’s what “some women have penises” is fundamentally about: not coercing people who don’t like dick into liking dick, but allowing people to make their own choices about whether the costs of surgery are right for them.

If you want to learn to accept your body as it is, without physical transition, most trans communities I know are fine with this. (Not all, of course! Some are awful. But most.) Conversely, in anti-trans circles I quite often see people say things along the lines of “I supported trans people until I found out some of them don’t even get the surgery” or “why are you identifying as trans if you’re not even making an effort” or “trans people who aren’t on hormones are fakers just doing it for the attention.” It is puzzling to me why a group of people would spend half its time talking about how transition medicine is disgusting and has many inevitable complications and will ruin your life, and the other half complaining that people don’t want to do it.

Also, it is painfully obvious to me that when you think “trans people” you think of trans women, because trans men are already doing the thing you want them to do.

Trans men have basically three options as regards genitalia: they can stick with their original equipment; they can get metoidoplasty, which leaves them with a micropenis which can’t ejaculate; or they can get phalloplasty, which leaves you with a penis that appears similar to the cis male penis but generally requires multiple surgeries, has a higher risk of complication, often reduces sensation, doesn’t allow for spontaneous erections, and still can’t ejaculate.

(Conversely, the state of the art for vaginoplasty is very good: a post-vaginoplasty vagina usually functions similarly to a natal vagina, except that you can’t get pregnant or have periods. And the second one most people are fine with anyway.)

So in practice whatever option trans men end up getting they have to come to terms with the fact that their genitals are very much different than cis men’s.

So we know what happens if you get a lot of trans people to try to accept their bodies as they are. 

You can come to terms with it and accept that your body works the way it does– just like we accept bad knees and back pain and weird moles and all the other pains and indignities that come with living with a human body. But accepting and making peace with something doesn’t mean you like it. For some trans men, their genitalia are a source of constant pain and dissociation; for others, it is something they can live with; still others learn to like them. In many cases, it takes quite a lot of effort compared to hypothetical surgery.  

8a) in a world without gender (ie. if everybody identified as agender), would gay people cease to exist? would gay culture cease to exist? if not, why not?

Presumably there would continue to be people who have preferences for certain sexed body types, but they would not identify themselves as “gay”, any more than people who have preferences for curly-haired people identify themselves as “curlysexual.” If sex and gender are not categories that society cares about, it would be really weird if one’s sexual preferences related to sex are a category people care about. For similar reasons, gay culture would certainly stop existing; there would be no reason for anyone to distinguish between gays and straights.

I expect that more people would be what we would call bisexual, perhaps more than half. Many people would have a preference for one body type or another, but occasionally have an interest of people in a different body type, without being particularly bothered or upset by this– as in our society, people who are usually attracted to curly-haired people are not particularly bothered or upset by being attracted to the odd person with straight hair.

8b) if so, would this be a favourable outcome?

I don’t know! There are a lot of considerations in many different directions. On one hand, our current system of gender harms many people: gender policing and stigma against the gender-non-conforming; gender roles which take away people’s basic human rights, such as the rights to eat, not to be raped, to choose who to marry, to make their own reproductive decisions, and to be educated; and the difficult-to-measure harm of gender itself. How many people are worse because we taught them that courage is a man’s virtue and kindness a woman’s? How many men flinch away from an innocent pleasure because it’s girly? How many women struggle with shame because they cannot live up to our culture’s impossible standards of womanhood?

Still, gender is something that brings many people joy. The chivalrous butch dyke in her suit, pulling out the chair for her ladyfriend, knows this as well as the most conservative of Christians. And I do feel a sense of loss at the idea that this agender future would have no comprehension of gay culture.

Would I press a button to go to this world? Sure, of course. No number of dapper butches is worth a young girl getting raped. But I remain hopeful that perhaps we can have the good parts of gender without the bad.

9a) are all women born without genital preferences? is an interest in penises a part of tabula rasa female existence?

As I discussed in the previous part, I don’t believe in tabula rasa female experience. When people are born, they presumably do not have any preferences about what genitals people they’re having sex with should have, because they are babies. Once a person is of an age to start having opinions on the subject, they have been raised in a culture, which has influenced them. In principle, you could describe how people with particular genes behave in any culture they could conceivably be raised in. But you could not answer what they would be like if they were not raised in a culture at all, because barring horrible neglect this is not a thing that happens to human beings.

(How are these hypothetical people raised without a culture supposed to even know what a penis is?)

This question is exactly as incoherent as “if women didn’t have genes, what would the culture influence them to do?” Nothing! They wouldn’t exist!

9b) if we examine the root of our repulsion towards penises and, indeed, all male sex characteristics, is the correct answer that deep down, we were attracted to them all along? is that the conclusion we are supposed to come to?

9c) if not, what is?

I mean, I don’t know what people on Twitter are up to these days, but my opinion is that you can’t force yourself to be attracted to anything. I feel that it is generally a good idea to stay open-minded in sex as in food or books. If you find yourself attracted to one particular male sex characteristic– not even on a trans girl, perhaps you get a crush on a cis girl with a mastectomy, who knows– then I think it’s better to go “oh, hey, cool” than to freak out about it. And I think it is best to avoid being prejudiced. But some people are not prejudiced and are perfectly open-minded and will still never find themselves attracted to anyone who has had a mastectomy. The cunt wants what it wants. Who cares.

If you are actually repulsed by all male sex characteristics possibly you should go see a therapist about that, I can’t imagine that it’s a good way to go through life feeling like you want to vomit every time you see a beard. But I suspect that this is probably an exaggeration.

10a) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through exploration of gender theory and re-framing of her perceptions of what it means to be a man or woman, would this be an appropriate response?

uh, sure? if she wants to?

10b) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through damaging her opportunities to access employment, housing, and social support networks as a response to non-compliance, would this be an appropriate response?

no!

10c) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through re-education at a dedicated facility, would this be an appropriate response?

this seems like kind of overkill, honestly, but if it’s fully consensual and uncoerced, and she’s informed of success rates, then why not? People have a right to try to alter their sexualities if they want to.

10d) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through aversion therapy — inducing, for example, intense self-loathing and worthlessness in response to undesirable feelings– would this be an appropriate response?

no!!!!!!

10e) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through electroshock therapy, would this be an appropriate response?

NO!!!!!!!!!!

10f) if the only way to eradicate genital preference in a woman was through internment followed by six months of brothel work followed by murder, would this be an appropriate response?

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU

10g) if not, why not?

uh I am not sure how to explain to you that murder is wrong

Strawmanny Questions About Genital Preference, Part One

Tags

I recently stumbled across this set of questions for trans people about sexual orientation and genital preferences. Since there is nothing I enjoy more than answering strawmanny questions, I decided to help.

1) if sexual orientation is an inborn trait, what is it based on? Innate sexual orientation can’t be based on a social construct — gender is a social construct — and can only be based on physical, material traits. This excludes genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, body hair distribution, scent, voice, etc, so what determines our attraction to others in terms of their gender? What element of any given gender is attractive to hetero- and homosexual people?

First of all, I think “innate” is a confusing word when talking about any aspect of human psychology, and prefer not to use it. All complex human traits– from language use to altruism, from art to work, from love to childrearing– are a product of a complex combination of genetics, non-genetic biological influences (such as prenatal factors or childhood nutrition), interactions with other people, the broader culture, and that thorny and mysterious thing we call ‘free choice.’ Sexuality is no different.

“Innate” is a confusing word, because it bundles together a bunch of different concepts. For example, if a thing is innate, there are connotations that it is more real or legitimate than things that are not innate: your genes are what you’re “really like,” and all that society stuff is just brainwashing covering over your genuine preferences that would exist in a cultural vacuum. But this is not how humans work. If we are innately anything, we are innately a cultural species. A child raised without cultural influences does not have the true, free, authentic preferences that humans have untouched by society; they are a feral child.

Similarly, there are connotations that if a thing is innate then it is unchangeable, and if it is not innate then it is changeable. Imagine that we knew for certain that one person’s depression was exclusively and 100% caused by a certain gene and another’s by her experience of childhood abuse: is the former cursed to depression forever, no matter which medications she tries or how much therapy she goes to or how well she takes care of herself? Are you surprised if the latter winds up dealing with the aftereffects of abuse for the rest of her life?

For this reason, I feel it is necessary to define “innate” with some less connotationally-laden term. I am going to here treat “innate” as meaning “caused by genetics or non-genetic biological influences early in life”; if I am misrepresenting the author’s point of view then I hope they go to the comments to correct me, and I shall rewrite. 

“Social construct” is also kind of a confusing word. I am not really sure what it means. So I am going to replace it with “thing that only exists because we all agree on it,” which again I think reflects the intended meaning of the author. If we chose not to have “do you have a penis or a vagina?” as a major organizing factor in our society, which decides everything from what color we decorate the nursery to how much you’re paid, then gender would not exist.

There are lots of things that only exist because we all agree on them. For example, language exists because we agree on it: we have all agreed that this one set of mouth sounds means “dog” and this other set of mouth sounds means “pickle” and this third set of mouth sounds doesn’t mean anything at all; if we all woke up one day and decided that no mouth sounds meant anything, they wouldn’t. But while the science of language acquisition is tremendously complex, we can all agree there is some genetic influence on humans’ ability to acquire language: that’s why humans can learn language and lemurs can’t.

Similarly, money only exists because we agree on it: dollars have value because we all agree that they have value; if we decided that dollars were worthless, cash would primarily have value as a form of toilet paper. Some people desire money greatly, while others don’t care about it at all. It seems likely that this is to some degree genetic, like every other personality trait. If you have two extremely greedy parents from lines of extremely greedy people, their child is likelier than average to be very greedy. But money is a social construct! So a genetic trait can cause someone to want something that is a social construct.

Therefore, the entire premise of this question is fallacious. 

2a) if they are not inborn traits, what are the bases of hetero- and homosexuality? are they learned behaviours, conscious or subconscious decisions, or something else?

Sexual orientation has a genetic component but is actually not particularly genetic. Among men, genetics explains about a third to two-fifths of variance in sexual orientation, while among women genetics explains about a fifth of variance. Sexual orientation may be related to prenatal environment. Sexual orientation has never been firmly linked to any postnatal childhood experience (although people are more likely to identify as LGBQ in an environment where this is socially acceptable). Certainly, the scientific consensus points to sexual orientation not being a choice.

However, historically, many societies have had much higher rates of homosexual behavior than our current society. Societies such as classical Greece, Rome, and the Islamic Golden Age all had extraordinarily high rates of bisexual behavior among men, to the extent that the average man behaved bisexually. It is difficult to explain this in any way other than culture. People in societies where being interested in both men and women is no more marked than being interested in both tea and coffee are far far more likely to have sex with both men and women. Since that’s not true in our society, you’d hardly expect it to show up in our studies of the variance in sexual orientation. So I do believe that there is a cultural component. Certainly, there are some people who are exclusively interested in men in any possible culture, and others who are exclusively interested in women. But the balance of the evidence, in my opinion, suggests that there is some cultural component for many people. 

2b) is the exclusive attraction to one gender bigoted in the case of gay men being unattracted to straight women, whom they oppress on the axis of gender? if so, why? if not, why not?

I don’t actually think it’s bigoted to not be attracted to people, even across an axis of oppression.

Certainly, one could be not attracted to someone in a bigoted fashion. To use an extreme example, if I am not attracted to a Jewish person because I believe that I must preserve the purity of the white race by not having sex with those of lesser races, obviously my lack of attraction is rooted in bigotry. For a less extreme example, if I am not attracted to a fat person because I believe that all fat people are lazy and gluttonous and that lazy and gluttonous people are unattractive, then that is rooted in bigotry. For an even less extreme example, our society typically does not depict wheelchair users as sexual beings: if I have never been attracted to a person in a wheelchair, is this because I have never been exposed to narratives in which a wheelchair user is an object of sexual desire? It is difficult to know without exposing me to those narratives. 

But in any of those cases, the problem is not the lack of attraction itself. A Neo-Nazi who is attracted to Jews is hardly a more ethical person than a Neo-Nazi who isn’t. The lack of attraction is a symptom of an underlying prejudice (or in the case of the wheelchair user, an oversight) that should be addressed.

But imagine a person who is not attracted to fat people because, for whatever reason, they happen to not find fat rolls particularly attractive, the same way that a person might not be attracted to thin people because for whatever reason they don’t find muscles or slender waists particularly attractive. I do not think this is bigoted. It is part of the beautiful diversity of human sexuality. 

I am assuming here for the sake of argument that the person knows why they’re attracted to a particular trait. Many people don’t: if you’re not attracted to fat people, it can be hard to know if that’s because you happen to dislike a particular physical trait or because you associate fat with laziness. Fortunately, this is totally irrelevant to what you should do. If you are prejudiced, you should try to become less prejudiced; if that changes your attraction patterns, then cool. If it doesn’t, well, who cares. 

If a man happened to be exclusively attracted to men because he thought women are silly and frivolous, and in the absence of this belief he would be attracted to both men and women, then he is a misogynist. If he is exclusively attracted to men because he prefers flat chests and penises and beards, then he is not. 

2c) if sexual orientation is immutable despite not being inborn or innate, at what point is it formed, and based on what? at which point is it immutable? at which age?
2d) if sexual orientation is not immutable, how can it be changed? under which circumstances? by which processes?

We don’t understand the origins of sexual orientation very well, so I don’t know at what point it is formed. However, given the general lack of success of conversion therapy, one could argue that sexual orientation is probably fixed by the time one goes through puberty. 

Alternately, of course, people who grow up in repressive religious environments who can be anything other than gay already are. That is why conversion therapy is so stunningly unsuccessful and doesn’t have its success rates inflated by the existence of bisexuals who could maintain a happy straight relationship all along. The bisexuals don’t go to conversion therapy in the first place. The existence of situational sexual behavior suggests that this is true for some people; however, anecdotally, people’s deliberate efforts to make themselves bisexual do not work as well as one would hope. 

So my guess is that it is fixed around puberty for many people and is more but not infinitely flexible for other people. And trying to become attracted to people doesn’t work at all. If you’re going to become gay in prison, your dick will handle it for you, willing yourself into wanting your bunkmate is not going to work. 

That said, placing yourself in an environment without people of the gender you are typically sexually attracted to sometimes seems to work. Many people are more likely to be bisexual in an open accepting environment which encourages low-stakes experimentation with people of the same gender, although many people won’t be. Hormone replacement therapy is also sometimes known to change sexual orientation, but obviously this approach is not helpful for cisgender people.

3a) if sexual orientation is not an inborn trait, why are approximately 5-10% of people of either sex repulsed by the opposite genitalia without necessarily having experienced trauma? what determines this? is “penis repulsion” (or “vulva repulsion”, i suppose) an inborn trait?

I am really skeptical of this statistic! Only about 1.7% of the U. S. population is lesbian or gay, and only one percent of people are asexual. Even if you assume that all asexuals and all gay people are repulsed by the opposite genitalia– which is very far from true– that suggests that between 1% and 6% of straight people are repulsed by the opposite sex’s genitalia. Since no source is given, and that seems pretty implausible, I think this statistic was made up.

Many people find genitals in general to be kind of squicky, especially outside of a sexual context. But I think that being repulsed by particular genitalia is pretty easy to get over, if there’s some reason to. Consider other forms of sexualized disgust. Homophobes are often genuinely disgusted by (male) homosexuality; I have read homophobic writers mention something as bland as the fact that gay men are sometimes penetrated, and then immediately apologize for the horrifying mental images this brings up. A completely non-homophobic person (who is not repulsed by sex in general) is not particularly horrified by reading the sentence “gay men are sometimes penetrated,” nor do they experience disgust when watching two men kiss or hold hands. (To be clear, if you are homophobic in this fashion, I don’t think you need to beat yourself up about it, as long as you don’t let queer people know that we disgust you.)

Presumably this is not because homophobes were born with a natural disgust for gay sex, while non-homophobes were born without this repulsion. Instead, non-homophobes have interacted with gay people, seen gay people kiss and hold hands, and normalized homosexuality. It is an ordinary part of life for them. Similarly, I expect that if you are repulsed by certain genitalia, and then you interact with them as part of a normal course of life– perhaps because you are a medical professional or you participate in certain clothing-optional events or you are heterosexual– they will become less disgusting. Instead, they will be an ordinary body part, perhaps an unappealing body part, but no more remarkable than an elbow. 

I don’t expect that becoming less disgusted by particular genitalia will make you want to have sex with people with those genitals. Lack of disgust is not enthusiasm; it is indifference. Even if you are chill about penises in general, it is perfectly reasonable to not want one coming anywhere near your bits. Fortunately, there is no law that requires that people have sex with everyone they are not disgusted by, or non-homophobic straight people would be in real trouble.  

Of course, a major difference between genital repulsion and being repulsed by gay people is that, unless you are heterosexual or a medical professional, you can live a perfectly long and happy life never interacting with genitals you think are gross. You should avoid expressing this opinion in public, as it may make people feel bad about their bodies, but I think there is no particular obligation to become undisgusted by genitalia unless you want to.

3b) if “genital preferences” are not inborn, how are they formed, and based on what? at which point are they immutable?

If the study of sexual orientation is in its infancy, the study of how sexual orientation interacts with transness is a fetus. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this question.

3c) if genital preferences are not immutable, how can they be changed? what process should someone go through if they are seeking to overcome their genital preference? what resources are available?

I feel like I need to emphasize that I do not actually think any person needs to be attracted to people with penises. There are more than enough straight and bi men, bi women, and lesbians who are attracted to trans women to keep every trans woman sexually satisfied for the rest of her life. (And the converse for trans men, of course.) I think a better approach is to destigmatize attraction to trans people, so that people who are attracted to trans people are not so full of self-hatred and disgust about it, so they can date trans people. 

But if for some reason you feel a deep desire to be attracted to both women with penises and women with vaginas… well, I’d suggest “conceptualize women with penises as women” but honestly a lot of guys who are into trans women don’t seem to do that? “She-male” is its own porn category. It’s worth a shot, though. I am not sure how to convince your brain to reclassify trans women as women; it seems like a thing that naturally happens in trans-positive social groups. At a guess, I’d suggest that hanging around with trans people helps. 

I’d also suggest looking at porn with trans girls in it. Maybe trans girls with cis girls at first, so the dick is no different than the dick in het porn you watch, just attached to a woman with a pair of nice breasts. Once you associate trans women with hot sex things happening, maybe you’ll be more cool with dick. 

There’s also just random chance. A lot of people I know were not particularly interested in trans women… until they met the one trans girl who happened to turn them on. I don’t believe in forcing people to be attracted to people they’re not attracted to. I encourage people to be open-minded about unexpected attractions, so that they don’t wind up dismissing something really good because it doesn’t fit your preconception of what you like. For a lot of people, dick in general is meh but their girlfriend‘s dick is hot. 

4a) sex-based attraction is considered to be problematic because we can’t always know someone’s sex just by looking at them. isn’t it also true that we can’t know someone’s gender just by looking at them?

Yep! This is why, in my experience, the most common form of attraction is based on secondary sexual characteristics: both the obvious ones like breasts and beards and the more subtle aspects of fat distribution and muscle size that make a person recognizable as male or female. Trans people who have been on hormones for a while usually have the secondary sexual characteristics associated with their identified gender, so many people are attracted to trans people.

Of course, the diversity of human sexuality is infinite. Some people are attracted to other people based on their stated gender identity; others, based on their presentation as feminine or masculine; still others, based on genitalia; and of course many people are attracted to a combination of these things.

4b) if a hypothetical gay man experiences attraction to a woman-identified person, does he lose attraction to her upon learning of her gender identity, or is he in fact bisexual?

Some people do lose attraction to people upon learning that they identify as women. Some people don’t. Being attracted to the occasional person of the other gender doesn’t make you straight, any more than a straight girl with a girl crush on Christina Hemsworth is bisexual, or a straight man who’s attracted to a very convincing crossdresser is homosexual. Trans people are confusing for sexual orientation, and it makes sense to identify as ‘gay’ if in general you are not attracted to women. 

4c) if he loses the attraction, why does the same principle not apply to sex-based attraction?

Well, sure, you can become unattracted to someone upon learning that they have a penis, just like you can become unattracted to them upon learning that their favorite movie is Thor: The Dark World or that they are cruel to puppies or any other trait you can’t learn from looking at them. You can also become unattracted to someone upon learning that they’re infertile, although the rarity of this complaint among infertility bloggers makes me suspect it is a less common preference than blog commenters on posts about dating trans women would lead one to believe.

You can also become unattracted to someone upon learning that they almost certainly have XY chromosomes. However, this is a very strange preference. Normally, people do not have sexual preferences about the inside of other people’s bodies: no one goes “it is SO sexy that you have two kidneys” or “I am only attracted to people with arachnoid cysts.” Therefore, one might suspect that this is related to the gendered meaning we assign XY chromosomes: that is, that people with XY chromosomes are men, and you are not attracted to men.

In fact, not being attracted to someone because they have XY chromosomes is very similar to not being attracted to someone because they identify as a man. In both cases, you have learned a fact you cannot observe that causes you to reinterpret their bodies as someone who is not a target of your sexual attraction, because they are not the gender of person that you are attracted to.

To be honest, I am curious about how this is supposed to work with the genetic nature of sexual orientation which cannot be influenced by social constructs or other such things we expect genes not to know about. How do your genes know what a chromosome is? Did you evolve very very quickly after the invention of karyotyping?

4d) if he is in fact bisexual, are we not all bisexual? how can we claim to be only attracted to women or men if we don’t know the gender identity of everyone we’ve been attracted to?

How can you claim to be only attracted to women or men if you don’t know the sex of everyone you’re attracted to? It seems to me that the “I am only attracted to people with XX chromosomes, therefore I’m straight” argument fails equally: you can never know for certain that you haven’t been attracted to a trans woman (or, for that matter, a convincing crossdresser). 

Like, seriously, are you going to tell me that if you’re a straight woman or a gay man and you walked down the street and looked at this guy:

and went “Nice!”, actually you’re bi? And how convinced are you that this has never happened?

Let us please use words in a way that vaguely corresponds to reality. 

5) if sexual orientation is based on gender, what is the definition of ‘gender’?

Gender is a word that means several different things, including:

  • The system of roles and expectations that derive from our sexed bodies;
  • The way that people classify individuals in relation to this system (as “men” or “women”);
  • Your inner psychological relationship to that system;
  • The specific aspect of your inner psychological relationship to that system that relates to your preferences about your sexed body and how you’re classified. 

The second one is thorny and people often misunderstand it as saying that it is masculinity or femininity. Laith Ashley up there probably has XX chromosomes. Lea DeLaria also has XX chromosomes:

They are both masculine people. They are both people with XX chromosomes. Gender is the thing where you can tell that Laith Ashley is a man and Lea DeLaria is a woman, and that she does not magically become a man due to her choice of haircut. 

I would honestly expect that sexual orientation is most often based on gender in that sense, because of the simple fact that most gay men and straight women are going to go “nice!” about Mr. Ashley and are going to go “not my type, because I’m not attracted to women” about Ms. DeLaria. If we have to reduce sexual orientation down to one single trait– instead of accepting that people’s sexualities differ and that “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual,” and “asexual” are abstractions over a more complex reality– this one would be the one. 

Poly ITT: Results

This year, we have an unprecedented number of winners of the Intellectual Turing Test.

The Ideological Turing Test, invented by Bryan Caplan, is a test of how well people understand other people’s viewpoints. The regular Turing test is a test for programmers: can you write a computer program which a human being cannot tell apart from another human being? The Intellectual Turing Test is a test for people who believe things: can you explain your opponent’s viewpoints in such a way that your opponent cannot tell it apart from someone who legitimately believes the opinion? If you can, it shows you understand your opponent’s positions on a deep level.

I asked some people who are pro-polyamory and some people who are anti-polyamory to write essays: one from the point of view of a pro-poly person and one from the point of view of an anti-poly person. Then, my readers voted about whether each essay was written by someone who genuinely held those beliefs, or someone who was pretending. If more than half of voters believed that someone was espousing their true beliefs, when really they were pretending, they would win.

On the anti side, we have:

  • Trace, #11, 86% (!) of the vote
  • Jonathan, #13, 63% of the vote
  • Liam, author of #12, 59% of the vote
  • Joel, author of #2, 58% of the vote
  • Insufferable_Bore, #1, 57% of the vote

On the pro side, we have:

  • Leona, #9, 78% of the vote
  • Tulip, #4, 73% of the vote
  • Deluks, #1, 65% of the vote
  • Tcheasdfjkl, #15, 65% of the vote
  • blacktrance, #2, 64% of the vote

Trace is the overall winner of the Intellectual Turing Test. Congratulations Trace! Accept your adulations in the comment section down below.

I would also like to congratulate the following participants on winning the Strawman Award for Poorly Representing Your Own Side:

  • 58% of voters thought that Deluks, author of ITT Pro #14, was anti-poly when in fact they are pro-poly.
  • 73% of voters thought that Liam, author of ITT Anti #7, was pro-poly when in fact he is anti-poly.
  • 59% of voters thought that Bill, author of ITT Anti #13, was pro-poly when in fact he was anti-poly

I would also like to announce an additional loser: the voters, who misidentified thirteen out of thirty-two entries, only slightly better than chance and a noticeably worse performance than previous years. My suspicion is that, because we rarely see arguments about polyamory, the voters had an incorrect idea of what pro-poly and anti-poly people believe and so underperformed compared to previous years.

Full Results:

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About What Americans Believe About Animal Rights?

Saulius recently published an excellent post about the results of certain opinion surveys relevant to animal advocates.

He suggested that to internalize the results you could guess the result of a question before reading what it was. I thought that we could do this one better by turning it into a quiz!

Click here for a fourteen-question quiz! When you’re done, you can compare how well you did to everyone else who took the quiz.

Poly ITT: Anti #16

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

The funny thing is that I actually wish that more people being poly was great. Monogamous relationships have so many problems and it would be great if being poly was the magical solution. Unfortunately, in my experience, watching friends/acquaintances, and reading relevant (admittedly sparse) research as well as more anecdotal accounts, I become more and confident that polyamory is actively damaging in the (vast) majority of cases. On the individual level, the main problem is that polyamory relies on a hugely idealistic view of people’s capacity for communication and growth. I’m sure pro-poly people would say things like “Yes poly is hard and takes work, but it’s work that you can do, and being monogamous takes work too.” or “Poly’s not for everyone, but it works great for a lot of people.” However I simply don’t see this being vindicated in reality, and additionally I think that poly demands more from people than these dismissive remarks acknowledge. Humans are imperfect, and almost every relationship will have a partner who is more invested and/or anxiously attached than the other(s). This person will experience their partner having other partners as loss and abandonment. They can learn to hide that, or learn to share these feelings in a ‘healthy’ way, or learn to distract themselves, or any one of a number of other coping mechanisms, but at the end of the day they are gong to be less happy than they would be if they could genuinely know that they are their partner’s only romantic priority. I’ve personally seen this happen at least twelve times, including in my own life when I was still trying to ‘be’ poly.

To change my mind I guess I’d want to see very rigorous large sample size longitudinal studies to convince me that everything I’ve just described is some kind of weird anomaly or something.

2. A polyamorous person has a date scheduled with their primary partner, but their secondary partner is in the hospital with an emergency and needs support. what typically happens next?

Most likely, the poly person has rigid ideas about the importance of ‘boundaries’ and ‘not taking responsibility for other people’s issues’, and so goes to the date with the primary, while telling the secondary that they care for them very much and are always there for them. The secondary partner feels abandoned and does not have the support they need, but they stop themselves from speaking up about this because they are a ‘secondary’ partner, and they ‘knew this was the deal going in.’. Probably over the next few months this turns into a fermenting resentment which eventually leads to a blowup and the end of that relationship with the secondary, and possibly with the primary as well, as a knock-on effect, though for some couples they’ve been through this multiple times before with secondaries and will simply brush it off as another person not respecting their boundaries.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

Well if we talk about styles of polyamory common today in Western countries, we don’t really have good data on what would happen so we have to take our best guess. I think this is actually a very important point: We have not tried this and don’t know what would happen, which makes it hugely risk to attempt and thus a bad idea. Obviously most poly people will say explicitly, when pressed, that they’re ‘not trying to make other people poly’, and that ‘polyamory works for some people, monogamy works for others, people are just different’, but this is a motte-and-bailey situation where most of the actual dialogue in poly communities does implicitly assume that polyamory is superior and that the world would be better of everyone was poly. So I think we need to be concerned about this as the popularity of the movement grows. The potential upside to 90% of people being poly is small, even if you take a very optimistic view when comparing poly relationships to monogamous relationships I don’t think any reasonable poly advocates would claim a more than say 10% increase in happiness for poly people, even just going by the prior that single changes in personal circumstances don’t affect people’s happiness very much. On the other hand, the downside is potentially huge, as it could destabilise the underlying structures of Western society in unpredictable ways, and an even partial collapse of Western society could easily decrease people’s quality of life far more than ten percent.

If 90% of people were poly I think it would likely lead to, in brief, chaos. It’s ridiculous to assume that we can create an entirely new social order just by thinking one up, when the current one we have took hundreds of thousands of years of trial-and-error. In addition, going by the (implicit) attitudes of poly people towards monogamy, the 10% monogamous people in this scenario would likely be persecuted in the precise ways poly people feel they are persecuted today. (I agree that there is persecution of poly people as I think people should have leeway in how they live their lives even if it’s worse for them, but a lot of what poly people describe as ‘persecution’ is not that, e.g. when it comes to raising children.)