April Fools Post #5

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I am not, I see, the first dimensional traveler to exist in this body. But how can I make you understand the strangeness of your world to me?

Imagine, if you will, a world where everyone is illiterate. There are no books to read; TV shows do not have subtitles; if you want people to know the rules at your local pool, you have to hire a person to stand near the door and explain it to each of them individually. There are a few simple signs– a red octagon means STOP, a yellow triangle means YIELD– but it has never progressed beyond that stage.

But it is not that this world has not invented literacy. Indeed, there are many written languages. However, these are essentially only known by the mute, and those who work with them. Perhaps a child will learn to spell a few words as part of the disability acceptance unit at their school: their name, maybe “mother” and “father,” maybe their favorite color. But if you have the capacity to use speech, in this world, you do not read.

I speak, of course, of the fact that your world does not have sign.

“But we don’t need sign,” you might say. “We can speak.” Certainly! As long as you never go to a concert. Or want to talk during a movie. Or have dinner at a crowded restaurant. Or take care of a newborn who sleeps lightly and wakes up often. Or want to send a message to someone without other people overhearing. Or want to talk at the same time that another person is talking. Or have a migraine, or autism, or any of dozens of conditions that lead to a sensitivity to sound.

Since none of those things are true, in fact, you would benefit a good deal from sign. But inexplicably instead of learning it you all choose to yell at each other at bars. Why.

I can’t believe how rude people in this world are in public spaces. In my world, if you’re in a restaurant or coffeeshop or on a train or an airplane, you automatically switch to signing. That way, everyone can understand what other people are saying, and no one has to overhear random scraps of other people’s conversations, and if you prefer to focus on your book you can.

In my world, half of all people are deaf. There is an pandemic childhood disease– unfortunately, we have had no luck in developing a vaccine– that nearly everyone catches. It is quite harmless and mostly just gives you a few days off school, but a little more than half of all sufferers wind up losing their hearing.

We would never consider the deaf to be disabled. Deafness is an advantage in so many ways. You’d never hire a hearing person to work construction, or in a factory, or at a stadium in any position other than sound engineer: hearing people can’t focus when there are loud noises, and it can lead to hearing damage such as unpleasant ringing sounds. Deaf people have a huge advantage in focusing: they can simply turn off their cochlear implants and zone out. And deaf people can live in cities, where you can hear sounds of construction and cars and your neighbors upstairs. Hearing people find cities very stressful.

And even if there’s not a specific advantage to being deaf, deafness is just… normal. Sure, deaf people have to go to different concerts than hearing people. (At deaf concerts, the music is loud enough to make a hearing person go deaf, because they usually like the vibrations.) Sure, they have to buy TTY devices if they want to use the phone. I have to spend ten minutes looking for my glasses every morning and you wouldn’t call me disabled about it. Some things are genuinely disabling, like chronic pain or using a wheelchair. But you people take an ordinary part of human variation– one that, as many variations do, has both advantages and disadvantages– refuse to accommodate it, and consider it a disability.

In your world, deaf children are often deprived of language in their critical period, because their parents don’t sign. In my world, this never happens. Is the problem deafness, or is the problem the fact that no one uses sign for no reason I can understand?

It’s a petty example, but think about video games. In my world, many first-person shooters include extra information through sound, but also include loud, distracting or unpleasant noises. (You know, the way that it actually happens during wars?) That way, the experience is fair for both deaf and hearing gamers. Your world refuses to make games that deaf players can play on an even field, and then claims that it’s their fault for not being able to hear!

Or think about movies. You CAN put subtitles in movie theaters. I have seen it. Why don’t you put subtitles routinely? Or cars honking. Why do cars honk? You can hear! It is unpleasant for you too! Replacing it with a flashing bright light, as we do, minimizes the effect on innocent bystanders.

Of course, not everything in our society accommodates deaf and hearing people equally. For example, our world’s musicals are traditionally signed and sung at the same time: the singing is what the characters are saying to each other, while the sign conveys their underlying emotions and thoughts. Of course all musicals have subtitles, but the experience is not at all the same.

In general, dance for us is much closer to song than to the abstract artform of your world. The distinction between dance and poetry, in particular, is often not clear: much poetry is intended to be signed, as poetry in your world is often intended to be read aloud. And this reminds me of the complexities of written sign! The way even fiction in written speech uses written sign to talk about what gestures people make, the various ways people have come up with to indicate a shaky hand or an abortive movement, the meaning of whether you use written sign or written speech or switching between them…

This is a tangent and I intend primarily to complain about your universe’s poor design. I have complained about subtitles and video game design, but above all you need to learn sign. I propose an intensive program of education in the nation’s elementary schools: full immersion in ASL from the moment they step into kindergarten. After a generation’s investment, all hearing people will be able to use both speech and sign, and your world will be tremendously improved.

Please ask me any questions you have and I’ll be sure to answer them over the course of today! I hope I will be able to convince you all of the necessity of learning sign and depathologizing deafness.

Sex-Positive, Porn-Critical?

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In the past, I have had a bunch of pretty positive things to say about porn.

Mea culpa.

To be clear, I have pretty positive things to say about some porn. I have nothing but positive feelings about AO3, pictures of hot naked people, the Best Women’s Erotica series, the Erogamer, porn comics, caption porn Tumblrs (RIP), the work produced by many independent camgirls, and the noble person who put every sex scene from Call Me By Your Name on Pornhub. But man, guys, mainstream video porn– the thing you get if you open up the tube sites and start scrolling– that stuff is actually pretty bad!

Now, in my defense, everyone else is entirely wrong about why it is bad. Criticism of mainstream video porn usually involves listing a bunch of sex acts I’ve done and then explaining that no real human being would ever do them. It is then explained that these acts are inherently degrading and objectifying and it is impossible to do them in a way that is respectful of other people’s personhood. The statistic that 88% of porn films include violence against women is thrown around, along with the fact that the women typically respond with pleasure. Finally, the explanation is wrapped up by explaining that all of this will lead to an epidemic of violence against women and porn-induced erectile dysfunction.

Taking it from last to first: It is difficult to know how common erectile dysfunction is. One review suggests a prevalence of somewhere between 3% and 76.5%. Therefore, it is very difficult to know whether erectile dysfunction is increasing beyond the expected rate of increase due to aging. More young men may be going to their doctors complaining of erectile dysfunction, but this might simply be because the treatment for ED now is a pill instead of months of therapy. Of course, there have been some positive anecdotes of people who stopped using pornography and their erectile dysfunction went away; if you struggle with ED and want to try it, there doesn’t seem to be any harm. But it is very far from certain that there is any link between erectile dysfunction and porn use in the general population.

If porn causes an epidemic of sexual violence, it is difficult to explain why rates of sexual violence continue to fall during the largest expansion of porn use in history. Of course, it is possible that some other cause, such as a decline in the acceptability of rape, is making rape rates fall, and they would have fallen even faster without porn. More careful work should be done. (It’s a pity no one convinced PornHub to roll out to a random selection of US counties for a few years first.) But I think this does put a hard cap on how large the problem could possibly be, and suggests that we should not come to overly firm conclusions from short-term laboratory studies of exactly the sort that have been falling victim to the replication crisis.

If the woman enjoys and consents to the violence against her, that is not violence, it is BDSM. Most porn videos depicting BDSM is an interesting fact but not in and of itself a sign that anything has gone wrong.

Sex acts are not inherently degrading or objectifying. Degradation and objectification are attitudes that people have to other people, and you cannot ward them off by sticking exclusively to PIV and oral. If you can’t understand how someone could facefuck someone they like, the problem is your failure of imagination, not the pornography.

I assure you that people who are not porn stars have deepthroated dick, taken it up the ass, had various body parts come on, been double-penetrated, been fisted, and nearly everything else you think real people don’t do. (I must admit, however, that as far as I can tell you are right about double anal. I too am suspicious that this sex act has only ever been performed with a camera in the room.)

So I feel I had a very reasonable conclusion here that mainstream video porn was probably fine, because all the arguments against it are terrible.

But I think, having watched more of it, actually I was quite wrong, and there are legitimate concerns I have about it.

Contrast mainstream video porn with, say, fanfiction. We make fun of Horrifying Fanfiction Lube, but the average fanfiction sex scene, in an ordinary ship, where everyone involved is human beings and not space aliens or elves or omegas, is a reasonably accurate depiction of 95th percentile sexy sex. The sex is somewhat kinkier than most sex is; communication is more seamless; no one ever farts or loses their erection at an inopportune time; people instinctively know the best ways to touch each other and no one has to figure out how to gently redirect someone else away from slobbering on their neck. And of course the sex usually has far more of a role in the narrative arc than sex in real life ever does. But overall, the acts people perform, the kinds of feelings they have, the relationships they have with other people, all seem like things real people would do.

Most of the time, to the extent that it is inaccurate, it’s inaccurate in a direction where, all things considered, you’d prefer it to be inaccurate. For example, fanfiction has an unrealistically high percentage of married gay couples who use condoms and typically depicts significantly more prep for anal sex than people usually do. But normalizing condom use is a good thing. And it’s good for people who are trying anal for the first time to be very cautious and go very slow; they can switch to a more reasonable amount of prep once they have more experience.

(One thing fanfiction is definitely inaccurate about, much to my eternal disappointment, is the percentage of men who are gay.)

And the things that are inaccurate are more clearly marked as inaccurate. No one is surprised when it turns out that human males do not typically go into heat or have self-lubricating asses. And it’s very rare to look in the Spike/Buffy ship tag for a depiction of loving, consensual sex in a healthy relationship. I know people who have gotten themselves in trouble because they’ve been misled by fanfiction, but you do have to work at it.

Mainstream video porn, on the other hand…

Most obviously, sex acts are often depicted in a way that is actively unsafe. The most obvious example is not using condoms, obviously, and I don’t need to belabor that. But think about the way mainstream porn depicts anal. Horrifying Fanfiction Lube is one thing, but at least they’re aware that you need lube. In mainstream video porn, you get guys with enormous dicks just banging away immediately without any sort of preparation or working up to it or even starting off slowly so she can relax. In real life, this is a recipe not just for painful, unpleasant sex but for anal fissures.

But even that criticism– as well as the criticisms I discussed above– miss the most important problem with mainstream video porn, which is that all of the films are apparently shot, directed, and starred in by bizarre sex aliens.

As far as I can tell, there’s very little foreplay, particularly if you require that your foreplay involve touching and caressing and exclude oral sex. There’s strikingly little kissing, and very little talking. Surprisingly often, sex begins by a woman stripping naked without a man touching her, dropping to her knees, and giving him a blowjob, without any sort of preliminaries. No one uses condoms or discusses birth control or testing. Strange and acrobatic sexual positions are depicted. At the end, he either pulls out and comes on her face, or comes inside her and then she squeezes the come out in a very unusual fashion. No one cuddles.

Now, I don’t mean to say that people don’t do those things. Obviously, people have unprotected sex without talking or kissing or touching, or where they strip naked instead of taking each other’s clothes off, engage in almost no non-genital sexual activities, use uncomfortable sex positions, and then end with a facial or the squeezy come thing and no cuddles. Some people even do all of those things. But I think the combination of all of those things is actually very very rare, while in porn it is a plurality of the videos available. It is not that any individual thing depicted is that strange, but collectively they give the impression that no one involved in creating porn has ever actually had sex with a human being.

What is worse, I think, is the absence of feelings or relationships. As far as I can tell, in video porn, sex typically consists solely of genitals being combined in various ways with orifices. It is quite difficult to work out what anyone’s opinion of the situation is, although you can extrapolate that presumably people think orgasms are nice. No one is unhappy and being comforted, or ecstatic about getting to have sex with someone so hot, or hopelessly in love, or trusting that their partner won’t hurt them when they try something new, or any of the other things that people sometimes feel about sex. In particular, it is quite hard to figure out what the people involved seem to think of each other. Rarely do the people involved seem to like each other, or dislike each other, or really have any sort of opinion of each other at all. In Bizarre Sex Alien Land, people typically have sex with people they’re completely neutral about.

This is even more appalling, in my opinion, than the first thing. Uncomfortable sex positions are a thing some people like, but it is actually extraordinarily rare to have sex where you have no emotions about the sex or the person whatsoever. Mainstream video porn leaves out a lot of what makes sex different from– and better than– masturbation. It’s a systematically inaccurate depiction of what sex is like.

Now, you might say that porn is intended as a masturbatory aid, not sex education, and sex education should be in schools. This is true as far as it goes. But I think proponents of this idea have failed to consider the sheer awkwardness of having education in middle-school health class about how most people typically kiss and touch each other extensively before they begin oral sex. This is really not the sort of lesson you want to have from your gym teacher. And while perhaps many people should read a good sex advice book before they begin having sex, most people won’t.

And, even setting that aside, I do think that watching a lot of mainstream video pornography is going to have an effect on your sexual script. How could it not? You have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours watching people do a thing. You may have few other sources of information of how it is done; you may never have done it yourself. Even if you know porn is inaccurate, where are you going to learn what sex is really like?

Of course, many people are sophisticated consumers of media, capable of separating reality from fiction. But mainstream video porn does not present itself as a ludicrous fantasy. It presents itself as a documentary of normal people having sex. And while viewers may be able to recognize that penises are not normally that large and women have pubic hair and you should use condoms, are they going to be able to recognize literally every way that porn is inaccurate?

I do not have hard data that suggests problems related to this. The generation that grew up with unlimited streaming video porn is still quite young. But I do not think it is at all unreasonable for sex-positive feminists to be concerned, and I wish that porn-critical discussions would move away from inaccurate statistics and slut-shaming and towards a more real discussion of the problems with pornography.

Don’t Goodhart Yourself

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[content warning: some non-explicit discussion of self-harm]

Goodhart’s Law is a concept used in data science which goes like this:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Goodhart’s Law is usually applied to the behavior of other people. For example, attendance is a good way of measuring how diligent your employees are, but if you start firing people for missing days then you’ll get people coming in with colds, infecting everyone, and playing Candy Crush all day because they’re too tired to get any work done. How many papers a scientist publishes is a good way of measuring how much they work, but if you make tenure dependent on how many papers a scientist publishes they’ll start breaking everything up into the smallest units of paper possible. How many nails a factory produces is a good way of measuring its success as a factory, but if you are a Soviet planner who requires the factory to produce as many nails as possible it will make tiny nails that aren’t useful for anything.

(There are other ways that Goodhart’s Law can end up working– for example, ice cream sales are a good way of measuring how hot it is, but setting a goal of selling a large amount of ice cream each day will not make the weather nicer– but these are not relevant for my post.)

However, Goodhart’s Law can also be applied to yourself.

People often set self-improvement goals, and when they do they often think of some way to measure what they care about. For example, if you want to exercise more, you might set a goal to go to the gym three days a week. If you want to finish a novel, you might set a goal to write five hundred words a day. If you want to have a better relationship with your husband, you might set a goal to have less than four fights per month.

Sometimes, the thing you’re measuring is directly the thing you care about. For example, if you are chronically sleep-deprived and decide to track how tired you feel in the morning, you aren’t going to encounter Goodhart’s Law problems, because tiredness is actually the thing you care about.

Often, however, the thing you’re measuring is different from the thing you care about. If you want to exercise more, you don’t want to fuck around at the gym on your phone, you want to take a class or use the treadmill or lift up heavy things and put them down.

Some of the ways Goodhart’s Law operates with people’s goals can be really obvious. For example, some people finishing NaNoWriMo will name their characters things like “Lady Mary von Grackle the Fourth” and then use the entire thing every time she comes up, or include the entire lyrics of every song their character is listening to, or edit every line of dialogue to include “X said” even if it is perfectly obvious who’s talking. If you are doing this stuff, it’s pretty obvious that you’re Goodharting your goal of writing a 50,000-word novel.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s not obvious at all, and that’s where you run into real trouble. You might be really proud of yourself for not getting into fights with your husband anymore– but instead you’re walking on eggshells avoiding every topic that might upset him and failing to bring up topics which you really ought to bring up, which actually makes your relationship worse.

And sometimes things can be Goodharting for some people and not for others. Let’s say your goal is to stop self-harming. For some people, the goal is actually to stop self-harming: maybe they’re tired of getting scars or it frightens other people. For other people, the goal is to avoid getting into situations where you’re so emotionally fucked up that self-harming seems like a good idea. If your goal is that second thing, white-knuckling through your self-harm urges by drawing red lines on yourself is actually useless– it achieves your target but does nothing about your goal.

Similarly, let’s say you set a target to do three things off your to do list each day. For many people– perhaps most– the real goal would be to accomplish things, and the worries about Goodharting would mostly be related to putting unnecessary things on your to do list so you can check them off. But if you have depression, your goal might be to recover from depression. You might drag your brain over metaphorical rocks getting yourself to do some dishes and cook dinner and achieve your target, but you’re still depressed.

Goodharting can get you into trouble in two ways. First, as in the arguments case, your target might be so poorly specified that it gets you to do things that are actively counterproductive to your goal– like not bringing up problems in your relationship.

Second, as in the self-harm, depression, and NaNoWriMo cases, reaching your target won’t directly harm your goal. You can search-and-replace “Lady Mary von Grackle the Fourth” with “Mary” and get a readable book. Doing more things off your to do list might even make you less depressed, if you’re the sort of person who tends to get less depressed if you’re more active. (Or more depressed, if you’re drawing on emotional reserves that you really shouldn’t be drawing on. It can go either way.)

The problem is that Goodharting misleads you about whether you’ve met your goal. You think you’ve written a novel, but when you cut out all the padding it’s a novelette at best. You think you’ve fixed your depression, but actually you’re just willpowering your way through doing the dishes. You think you’ve learned how to regulate your emotions better, but actually you’ve learned that if you self-harm by holding ice instead of by cutting you can pass it off to your therapists as a healthy coping mechanism. You’re putting a lot of work in– but you’re not going to have the outcomes you want.

How do you avoid Goodharting? It can help to explicitly distinguish “goal” and “target”: your goal isn’t to go to the gym three times a week unless you’d be just as happy if you spent the entire time at the gym reading a nice novel. That way, you can notice when you’re meeting your targets but not your goals. If your relationship with your husband is getting worse, you can step back and reassess.

It can also help to deliberately avoid doing things that help you reach your targets but not your goals. This is one way that single-person Goodharting is much easier to solve than multi-person Goodharting: you can just decide that you’re not going to Goodhart, once you’re aware that this is an issue. For example, if you’re depressed, you might commit to never using willpower to get yourself to do things. If you’re writing a novel, you might decide not to use cheap tricks to pad your word count.

In other cases, that isn’t realistic. For example, you might not want to commit to self-harming every time you feel like self-harming, and if you’re depressed you might ever need to force yourself to do the dishes so you have something clean to eat off of. In those cases, you might want to count Goodharted things separately. For example, as a depressed person, you might want to separately track things you did without willpower and things you did with willpower; if you’re trying to recover from self-harming, you might want to track both self-harm instances and strong urges to self-harm.

Polyamory Survey: The Results, Part One

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I collected 498 responses to my polyamory survey. Of these, 19 (3.8%) were deleted for being monogamous, leaving me with 479 respondents. The survey was promoted primarily on my blog, Thing of Things, and Slate Star Codex. For this reason, it is primarily representative of the rationalist community. 81% of respondents identified as rationalists.

Limitations

Due to a miscommunication with Scott Alexander, the polyamory survey as posted on Slate Star Codex failed to clarify that single people who would be nonmonogamous if they were dating anyone should take the survey. This may lead to underrepresentation of single respondents.

Mid-survey, I added some clarifications, which included defining “assigned gender at birth” and informing people who don’t know what a rationalist is

At least one person failed to follow instructions and included platonic primary partners; I do not expect the number of people who both have platonic primary partners and are bad at following directions to be high enough to distort the data. While I attempted to create categories that would encompass many different ways of doing polyamory, some forms may not be accommodated; for example, one participant complained that he slept with dozens of new people every year but, as he does not have many relationships, was recorded in the survey as having no partners. I do not expect people this unusual to distort the results much.

Several people refused to take the survey because they felt uncomfortable classifying their gender, sexual orientation, or romantic orientation within the boxes given. This survey may underrepresent queer people with unusual genders or orientations. Some participants felt that “transgender” is a term which only includes binary-gendered people; thus, nonbinary people may either have been underrepresented or incorrectly included as cisgender.

The definition of “sex” was confusing to several respondents. In particular, some respondents included cybersex as sex, while some did not. Depending on whether you consider cybersex to be sex, my survey may either undercount or overcount how much sex people are having.

Do Cis Straight Poly People Exist?

Before we can determine whether polyamory works well for cisgender heterosexual people, it is first necessary to determine whether cis straight poly people exist at all.

The answer appears to be “yes”. The gender, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation breakdown of respondents is as follows:

7.1% asexual
42.7% bisexual
42.9% heterosexual
7.3% homosexual

1.5% aromantic*
45.5% biromantic
44.7% heteroromantic
8.4% homoromantic

54.4% cisgender male
24.9% cisgender female
7.5% transgender person assigned female at birth
13.2% transgender person assigned male at birth

(There was a high overlap between “heteroromantic” and “heterosexual”, “biromantic” and “bisexual”, etc.)

However, I live in Berkeley, so I am aware that cisgender straight poly people often do things that many monogamous people would not consider to be very heterosexual or cisgender. For this reason, I included two additional questions to test whether someone is paradigmatically cisgender and heterosexual.

I asked heterosexual people whether they had had sex with a person of the same gender, or with any transgender person. (After some consideration, I chose to include all transgender people, on the grounds that cis people seem to consider sex with any of us to be kinda gay.) I clarified that “sex” includes any activity two or more people are doing, at the same time, which is primarily intended to cause sexual arousal or orgasm in one or more participants, and that it still counts if a person of your preferred gender was also involved, you didn’t touch their genitals, one or both of you didn’t get naked, it was BDSM, it was exclusively over the Internet, etc. 40.5% of heterosexual respondents have had sex with a person of the same gender, or with any transgender person.

I asked cisgender people whether they have taken any steps conventionally considered to be part of a gender transition process, such as taking cross-sex hormones; asking people to refer to them with different pronouns or a name not associated with their assigned gender; binding, tucking, or wearing clothing or makeup conventionally associated with the other primary gender on a regular basis; or deliberately altering their presentation to cause people to read them as the gender they weren’t assigned at birth. 13.6% of cisgender respondents have taken a step conventionally considered to be part of a gender transition process.

It is now possible to calculate what percentage of poly people are paradigmatically straight and cisgender. 21.5% of poly people in my sample were paradigmatically cis and straight. Rationalists were more likely to be paradigmatically cis and straight than nonrationalists: 36% of rationalists were paradigmatically cis and straight. 33% of cisgender men were paradigmatically cis and straight, while only 8% of cisgender women were paradigmatically cis and straight. This reflects the common polyamorous wisdom that cisgender, heterosexual poly women are very rare.

*I used a narrow definition of aromantic, in which a person is uninterested in having any relationships described as “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” or “partner”, rather than a broader definition in which one might have partners that one is not romantically attracted to.

Are Poly People Cucks?

Many people accuse polyamorous people, particularly men, of being cucks: that is, they are sexually aroused by the idea of their partners having sex with other people. Unaccountably, no one has ever collected data on this claim.

At first blush, this generalization seems accurate: 78.7% of respondents reported that they found the prospect of a partner having sex with someone else arousing, even if only a little bit or only in particular situations. However, only 15.2% of respondents found it arousing in a submissive way, as implied by the word “cuck” (e.g. you are aroused by your partner having sex with other people because you find it humiliating). 29.4% found it arousing in a dominant way (e.g. the idea that you might “force” your partner to have sex with someone else). The majority of respondents, 76.8%, found it arousing in a non-kinky fashion (e.g. because it is hot when your partner has orgasms).

Further, this arousal is not a significant driver of people’s interest in polyamory: only 4.8% of respondents reported that this was a major reason for them to be poly.

I will now look at cisgender male respondents specifically, as this is a subject of particular interest. 79.3% of cisgender men found the prospect of a partner having sex with someone else arousing; 15.7% were aroused in a submissive way, 35.7% in a dominant way, and 73.4% in a non-kinky way. 7.2% said that this was a major reason for them to be polyamorous. Cisgender men appear to have approximately the same pattern as everyone else, although they are perhaps slightly more likely to be interested in a dominant fashion and less likely to be interested in a nonkinky fashion; cis men may also be more likely to have this as a primary reason for them to be poly.

Therefore, I have concluded that, while poly men are typically aroused by their partners having sex with other people, poly men are not in fact cucks, nor is this a major reason for them to be poly. I am unclear on whether it is a good idea to raise awareness of these results, however. If you must humiliate someone for their partner having sex with other people, you should at least humiliate the people who get off on it.

Tune in next post for answers to a variety of other exciting questions such as:

  • Are poly people satisfied in their relationships?
  • How many people are poly people dating?
  • Are poly cis men lonelier than poly trans people or poly cis women?
  • How much sex are poly people having really?
  • Are poly people more attracted to their primaries or their secondaries?
  • And more!

Autogynephilia Survey

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Methods

I have 784 respondents; twenty respondents were deleted for skipping an excessive number of questions, leaving me with 764 respondents. The respondents were mostly taken from my blog, Thing of Things; therefore, they may not be representative of the general population.

To assess autogynephilia, I used a 22-item scale which is commonly used in the literature on autogynephilia. Unlike in previous studies, I did not alter the language for cisgender respondents. To assess autoandrophilia, I genderswapped the items on the scale. Certain items were easily genderswapped: for example, “fantasies in which I have a vagina/vulva” became “fantasies in which I have a penis”. Others required more of a judgment call, as when I decided that erections and ejaculation are physical male functions analogous to pregnancy. As my autoandrophilia scale has never been validated, the results are unreliable and should be considered preliminary. Further, this scale would not capture any ways that autoandrophilia manifests differently than autogynephilia. (For example, one might expect autogynephiles to be more interested in wearing women’s clothing, as there is more sexy clothing which is only for women than sexy clothing which is only for men.)

To assess gender, I presented two questions. The first asked people to identify as cisgender or transgender. The second asked people to identify as transgender, definitely cisgender, or uncertain whether the terms “cisgender” or “transgender” best describes them.

To assess sexual orientation, I asked whether a person was attracted to both men and women, men but not women, women but not men, exclusively nonbinary people, or no one at all.

Demographics

A gender and sexuality breakdown follows. Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

53% cisgender men
19% cisgender women
10% transgender people assigned female at birth
18% transgender people assigned male at birth

24% definitely cisgender men
9% definitely cisgender women
8% AFAB transgender
16% AMAB transgender
14% neither cisgender nor transgender AFAB
30% neither cisgender nor transgender AMAB

18% bisexual cisgender men
32% heterosexual cisgender men
2% homosexual cisgender men
1% asexual cisgender women
12% bisexual cisgender women
4% heterosexual cisgender women
1% homosexual cisgender women
2% asexual AFAB trans people
6% bisexual AFAB trans people
2% homosexual AFAB trans people
2% asexual AMAB trans people
8% bisexual AMAB trans people
1% heterosexual AMAB trans people
6% homosexual AMAB trans people
1% miscellaneous

Autogynephilia and Autoandrophilia Scores

(For these numbers, a score of zero indicates that none of the fantasies are arousing, while a score of 88 indicates that all of the fantasies are very arousing. Please behold the quarter-assed bar charts.)

Autogynephilia

Cisgender man: 44
Cisgender woman: 22
AFAB trans: 13
AMAB trans: 35

 

Definitely cisgender man: 36
Definitely cisgender woman: 25
AFAB trans: 11
AMAB trans: 40
Neither cisgender nor transgender, AFAB: 22
Neither cisgender nor transgender, AMAB: 48

Asexual cisgender man: 41
Bisexual cisgender man: 52
Straight cisgender man: 40
Gay cisgender man: 40

Asexual cisgender woman: 6
Bisexual cisgender woman: 36
Straight cisgender woman: 17
Gay cisgender woman: 21

Asexual AFAB trans: 2
Bisexual AFAB trans: 17
Straight AFAB trans: 15
Gay AFAB trans: 7

Asexual AMAB trans: 31
Bisexual AMAB trans: 39
Straight AMAB trans: 17
Gay AMAB trans: 36

[Note that sample sizes for asexual cisgender men and heterosexual AFAB trans people are particularly small.]

Autoandrophilia

Cisgender man: 20
Cisgender woman: 25
AFAB trans: 30
AMAB trans: 6

Definitely cisgender man: 23
Definitely cisgender woman: 18
AFAB trans: 30
AMAB trans: 7
Neither cisgender nor transgender, AFAB: 29
Neither cisgender nor transgender, AMAB: 17

Asexual cisgender man: 18
Bisexual cisgender man: 23
Straight cisgender man: 18
Gay cisgender man: 26

Asexual cisgender woman: 8
Bisexual cisgender woman: 28
Straight cisgender woman: 23
Gay cisgender woman: 24

Asexual AFAB trans: 19
Bisexual AFAB trans: 33
Straight AFAB trans: 19
Gay AFAB trans: 34

Asexual AMAB trans: 7
Bisexual AMAB trans: 8
Straight AMAB trans: 3
Gay AMAB trans: 2

[Note that sample sizes for asexual cisgender men and heterosexual AFAB trans people are particularly small.]

Discussion

Confusingly, cis men are the group most likely to experience autogynephilia, and cis women are also more likely than average to experience autoandrophilia. However, when broken out into more specific categories, we discover that this is mostly driven by people who identify as neither cisgender nor transgender– that is, the potentially gender dysphoric.

People are much less likely to experience autoandrophilia than autogynephilia. It is unclear why this might be. It is possible that my measure failed to capture autoandrophiliac sexuality; I suggest performing qualitative research on transgender men to construct an appropriate measure. It is also possible that autoandrophilia is legitimately less common than autogynephilia for some reason: for example, perhaps because female bodies are hypersexualized in the media while male bodies are not, or because people with testosterone-dominant systems have kinkier sexual fantasies.

It has been occasionally claimed that women do not experience autogynephilia. My study suggests that this is false. While cisgender women do not experience autogynephiliac fantasies as commonly as AMAB transgender people do, they do seem to sometimes experience autogynephilia. However, it is also occasionally claimed that autogynephilia is ordinary female sexuality. It does not appear that my survey supports this hypothesis; cis women are far less likely than trans women to be autogynephiles. Autogynephilia seems more characteristic of definitely cis male sexuality than definitely cis female.

Some trans advocates argue that trans women overreport autogynephilia, because if one has a penis it is marked and unusual to have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina, while if one has a vagina it is not at all marked or unusual to have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina. It is unclear how this hypothesis can be tested; as such, my survey does not provide evidence for or against it.

It has been occasionally claimed that trans men do not experience autoandrophilia. My survey suggests that this is false; trans men have a notably higher rate of autoandrophilia than other groups. The alternate construct of “autohomoeroticism” is not supported: autoandrophilia is detected in a survey which does not ask about any specifically homosexual male behaviors, but merely about sexual arousal when imagining having a physically male body and adopting a male social role.

Autogynephiliac fantasies tend to be about having a woman’s body, wearing women’s clothing, or being admired or having sex while a woman. Very few people were interested in more outré forms of sexuality, such as menstruation, urinating while sitting down, sitting in a feminine way, or being seen as a woman by strangers. Trans women are more likely than cis women to be aroused by these unusual fantasies: cis women’s average is typically between 0 and 0.5 on a scale where 0 means not at all arousing, and trans women’s is typically around 1. However, most trans women have no interest in these fantasies; attempts to depict them as typical of trans female sexuality are inaccurate. 

Similarly, autoandrophiliac fantasies tend to be about having a man’s body (particularly a penis) or being admired or having sex while a man, and not about adopting a male-typical social role outside of a sexual context. 

Bisexual cis women experience a rate of autogynephilia comparable to transgender women’s. I believe this is problematic for claims that no real woman would experience autogynephilia; it implies that either bisexual cis women are not real women or that they are lying about their sexual fantasies in a far less socially desirable direction. It is possible that something unusual about bisexual cis women causes them to fetishize womanhood. It is also possible that autogynephilia is associated with same-gender attraction; certainly, it seems like being attracted to breasts might cause you to be attracted to your own breasts. However, if that is the case, it is unclear why lesbians show such low rates of autogynephilia. My sample size of lesbians was quite small and it is possible this is just noise. I suggest interested people study autogynephilia specifically in a queer cisgender female population.

Gay and bisexual men show elevated rates of autoandrophilia compared to heterosexual men. However, their rates are not comparable to trans men’s. It is possible that while autogynephilia similar to trans women’s is typical of (bisexual) female sexuality, autoandrophilia similar to trans men’s is not typical of any sort of male sexuality. It may also reflect the inadequacy of my measure of autoandrophilia.

Definitely cisgender men are both more autogynephiliac and more autoandrophiliac than definitely cisgender women. This may be due to social desirability bias, poor awareness of one’s sexual fantasies, lower sex drives due to estrogen-dominant hormone systems, or a legitimate difference in sexual interests between definitely cisgender men and definitely cisgender women.

Polyamory Survey

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I have some questions about polyamory I’d like to have answered! Click here for invasive questions about your relationship satisfaction, sexual interests, and sad feelings. You will be rewarded with animal and plant pictures.

This survey is for non-monogamous people only. That means that, if you wanted to, you and/or your partner(s) could date and/or have sex with more than one person, without violating the rules of your relationship. If you do not have any partners but expect that you would be nonmonogamous if you did, you are nonmonogamous. If you and your partner are both dating only each other, but could date other people if you chose, you are nonmonogamous.

If you are monogamous and take this survey you will not get to answer any questions. You will merely be redirected to the following image of a sad puppy:

 

Ozy Working For ACE

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve recently started a job as a research associate at Animal Charity Evaluators.

As such, my blog and advice column will update less often than they previously did, I’ve shut down my Patreon, and my time will not be available to buy. However, I hope to continue to write here at least occasionally. When I post, while I may occasionally comment on animal and effective altruism issues, my posts should not be taken as speaking for my employer.

Thank you for your support over the years– you’re a great audience and I could not have done it without you.

Philosophy of My Advice Column

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I have been writing an advice column for a little more than a month, and I have already discovered I have many opinions about how my advice column works. I have decided to write them up in order to help people decide whether they would like to write to my advice column or a different advice columnist.

First: I view my job as an advice columnist as trying to help the letter writer solve their particular problems. I am on, a very basic level, on my letter writer’s side. I have already received letters that make me feel like I would not like the letter writer particularly much as a person, ones with political beliefs I strongly disagree with, and even ones that made me tempted to go “well, stop sucking and you wouldn’t have the problem anymore.” But I’ve tried my best to attempt to improve my letter writers’ lives according to their own values, goals, and preferences, without telling them those values are stupid and they should get better ones. And I avoid telling my letter writers that they are terrible people.

If I receive a letter where I’d have a hard time being on my letter writer’s side– whether because of personal triggers or because I actually find their goal appalling — I’d probably avoid answering it. But I think I can be on the side of a lot more writers than one could naively assume: if you want to write me about your struggle to avoid masturbation, or your difficulties with loneliness as a celibate same-sex-attracted person, or your paralyzing fear about the world being destroyed by superintelligent AI, I am going to do my best to adopt your worldview instead of starting with “well, I disagree.” (If for some reason this is a problem you feel is best solved by a sex-positive feminist who prioritizes global poverty and animals.)

I don’t think this approach is right for every advice columnist: Dan Savage certainly doesn’t, and Savage Love is an amazing advice column; That Bad Advice is an amazing advice column which does literally the opposite of my thing. But I think it creates a certain amount of safety when you’re writing, and it’s an approach I personally feel comfortable with.

Second: this is an advice column. I am providing solutions to problems the letter writer has in their life. I am not providing political commentary, structural solutions, explanations of what things would be like in a better world than the one that already exists, or essays loosely inspired by the letter. Again, there are lots of great advice columns that do those things, but this is my advice column and this is what I’m doing.

Third: I am a person with limited knowledge. In an announcement, I described my areas of expertise as “sex, kink, dating, polyamory, BPD, neurodivergence more generally, effective altruism, transness, scrupulosity, abuse, spiritual abuse, and parenting persons under the age of 18 months.” However, if you write me about some topic that is far outside of my area of expertise, I’m going to assume you want my perspective on it; I will probably talk to friends with more knowledge or note that this is not a thing I have a lot of experience in, but I will still offer my uninformed opinions.

Right now, I’m getting few enough letters that I can answer every letter. If or when that changes, I’m probably going to favor answering letters in my areas of expertise over answering letters which are not in my areas of expertise.

Fourth: I strive not to recommend ending relationships or seeking therapy/medication. I feel like these are common band-aids when the advice columnist doesn’t really know how to answer the question, and they’re usually provided without considering why it might be hard for a person to end a relationship or seek therapy/medication. Some people have moral objections to divorce or estrangement from parents; some people are financially dependent on the person; some people are coparenting children and have a functional coparenting relationship; some people are simply not ready to end it. Many people can’t afford therapy or medication, have a difficult time finding a compatible therapist, can’t fit in appointments around their schedules, or are dependent on a parent or spouse who would object.

I do suggest ending relationships, therapy, and medication sometimes. But I try to always provide some other alternative, in case the person doesn’t choose that: advice about how to maintain the relationship, in the former case, or self-help books, peer support groups, coping mechanisms, or advice about supplementation.

(Exception: if to the best of my ability to interpret the letter writer they are writing a letter of the genre “please give me Official Permission to end my terrible relationship,” I will give them official permission to end their terrible relationship. This is also the response you can expect if you’re looking for Official Permission to transition, to identify as LGBT+, to have a particular kind of sex, or not to have sex.)

Fifth: I am a weird person and this has improved my life a bunch. A lot of my solutions tend to be of the form “have you considered just being weird?” If you are particularly interested in being normal and respectable (instead of just appearing normal and respectable to outsiders, which of course is a thing many weird people sometimes have to do), my advice is unlikely to be helpful.

Sixth: I tend to recommend safe rules. These are rules that have a lot of false negatives but don’t have a lot of false positives: that is, they almost never say something is okay when it isn’t, but they often say that things aren’t okay when they really are. Knowing what actions are okay often comes down to context, personal relationships, and the ability to read the room. As an advice columnist, those are exactly the things I don’t have– and I definitely can’t have it for every situation you might encounter. That letter would be far far too long. And I don’t want to say “pay attention to context and read the room,” because if you knew how to do that you probably wouldn’t be writing me. I also find that safe rules tend to be helpful for my anxiety: I can very confidently say “well, I’m following the rule, so it’s fine.”

When I’m recommending a safe rule, I tend to specifically highlight it as a conservative rule with a lot of false negatives and few false positives, so that people don’t worry that the probably-fine things they’re doing are actually bad.

If this advice column interests you, you can read it here or send an email to thingofthingsadvice@gmail.com. (For people who use throwaway emails, I’ll note that I don’t answer letters privately and you don’t have to remember the password to your throwaway.) If you appreciate my advice, you can back me on Patreon.

Why More Transgender People?

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[This post was prompted by Andree. To prompt a post, back me on Patreon.]

In the past ten or fifteen years, there has been a massive increase in the number of transgender people. A 1997 estimate– from the clinic that treated over 95% of transgender people in the Netherlands– suggested 1 in 10,000 people assigned male at birth and 1 in 30,000 people assigned female at birth are transgender. Today, the best surveys suggest that 0.6% of people in the United States identify as transgender. How did this increase happen?

If you read LGBT history, it is striking how many people are what we would presently call transgender. Classic lesbian novels such as the Well of Loneliness depict recognizably transgender experiences. Stone butch women wore masculine clothing, behaved in a masculine fashion towards their partners, and did not allow their partners to touch their genitals; some people who had a stone butch identity, such as Leslie Feinberg, eventually identified as transgender. In the gay male community, we see “drag queens” who lived as women, used female pronouns, and desired bottom surgery (for an introduction, I can’t recommend highly enough the documentary Paris is Burning and David Valentine’s excellent Imagining Transgender). There were many heterosexual men who crossdressed regularly, and even special cruises and conferences which catered to them; again, many of these men took hormones or even sought surgery (Amy Bloom’s Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses is unsympathetic and rather transmisogynistic, but an interesting resource).

What did these people have in common? If they bought hormones, they did so on the grey market; if they got surgery (and most either couldn’t afford it or had spouses who objected), they flew to Thailand. Most did not biomedically transition. They also did not legally transition, and often did not socially transition: crossdressers were male at work and around their family; many drag queens and butches lived as their assigned gender during the work week. Their experiences are recognizably transgender experiences, but they are invisible to gender clinics, survey-takers, and much of the cisgender population.

Today, we have better access to transition treatment: while there is still gatekeeping, it is rare in the Anglosphere to be denied hormones because you’re gay, because you use your genitals during sex, because you’re a trans woman who wears pants, or similar. That leads more people to transition and more people to transition through a gender clinic instead of on the grey market.

Being transgender is also more socially acceptable in many ways. It is a double-edged sword; if people are more aware of transgender people, it is also harder to go stealth. But trans people tend to experience less housing discrimination, job discrimination, and familial rejection than they used to.

Trans people respond to incentives. It’s not true that gender dysphoria automatically leads to transition. Some gender dysphoric people have a choice between transition or suicide (although to be fair even in this case we would expect some of that population to show up in the suicide statistics instead). But if the cost of transition is high enough, many gender dysphoric people dissociate and depersonalize and are depressed, many gender dysphoric people live for the weekends or trips into the big city where they can be themselves, and many gender dysphoric people will have secret fantasies that they never tell anyone about. As transition becomes more accessible and socially acceptable, people are less likely to use non-transition coping mechanisms for gender dysphoria.

Equally important, I think, are the narratives which are available to frame our experiences. One of the reasons people identify as transmasculine instead of stone butch, or transfeminine instead of drag queens, is that these are the narratives we have to put our experiences into. The lines between gender-non-conforming people and transgender people are not as sharp as we’d like to believe or as would be politically convenient. We gender-non-conforming and gender dysphoric people are, often, an inchoate mass of feelings and desires and incoherent yearnings; it is often hard to know what we want as opposed to what we don’t want. We reach out to our communities for labels and identities and ontologies, and those labels and identities and ontologies wind up shaping what we desire. Of course they do. That’s how people work.

The same person, with the same desires, may identify as a butch lesbian, a radical feminist, a nonbinary person, or a queer trans man, depending on what segment and era of the LGBT+ community they are part of– and they might be equally happy and comfortable in each identity, if it is socially legible to their community. I think it’s a mistake to say that that person “is really” nonbinary, or “is really” butch, or “is really” a radical feminist. They have certain wants, certain needs, and certain ways of articulating those wants and needs are socially legible to their communities. (I wrote a similar process here, with regards to gray asexuality.)

As trans-related identities, labels, and ontologies displace their predecessors, and people are more likely to understand themselves from a trans-related framework, more people are likely to identify as trans and to transition (at least socially). To some extent, the incentives and labels explanations feed into each other: as more people come to understand themselves as trans, the conditions for trans people improve; as the conditions for trans people improve, more people come to understand themselves as trans. But I believe they are distinguishable and both play a role.

Book Post for June

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Non-Fiction

The Origins of Happiness: A book about the various things that are correlated with life satisfaction scales. In and of itself, this is an interesting topic. However, the author fancies themself a person who is Reforming Public Policy in order to Bring About A New Focus On Happiness, which makes the entire book epistemically dubious. Here are some criticisms not addressed by the author at any point:

  1. A life satisfaction scale involves rating your life on a scale of 1 to 10. While this metric has some advantages (it lets people decide for themselves what factors they want to incorporate into their life satisfaction assessment), at no point does the author provide evidence that this metric is correlated with a common-sense definition of happiness. They also provide no reason to choose life satisfaction over other metrics, such as experiential happiness or “how happy are you?” questions, which often have correlations of different strength or even direction.
  2. Correlation does not equal causation. People tend to report higher life satisfaction if they are married, but that doesn’t mean marriage increases life satisfaction. Perhaps happier people stay married for longer and miserable people are more likely to divorce, or perhaps both marriage and happiness are caused by some other factor, such as religiosity.
  3. Life satisfaction may be compared against a reference class. If you mostly know people with very very good lives, you might consider your life mediocre, while if you mostly know people with terrible lives, you might consider your life very good– even if your life is the same in every way.
  4. In particular, the author’s data suggests that being around richer people lowers life satisfaction, holding income constant. In fact, all the life satisfaction you gain from increasing your income a certain amount is exactly balanced by the amount of life satisfaction lost by the people around you. But this is a strange result: it implies that no one gains any life satisfaction at all from any of the things you can purchase with money, such as education, vacations, nice food, entertainment, health care, or financial security. Life satisfaction is only gained by having more than other people. All goods are zero-sum positional games. The author suggests deprioritizing increasing GDP, but does not suggest any of the more radical policies that are implied by this point of view. If life satisfaction is an accurate measure of wellbeing and nothing you can purchase with money affects wellbeing, why not ban vacations? They cost a lot of resources (e.g. flying planes spews a lot of carbon) and don’t actually make anyone any happier.
  5. Depression is highly correlated with low life satisfaction ratings. But standard depression inventories ask many questions that are, essentially, life satisfaction questions, like whether you’re unhappy all the time and whether you think you’re a failure. Does this mean that the mental health condition of depression causes low life satisfaction (and thus that the best way to improve life satisfaction is to treat depression), or does it mean that if you define a mental health condition as “people who have low life satisfaction” it will turn out they all have low life satisfaction?

Addicted to Lust: A fascinating ethnography of porn use in the conservative Protestant subculture.

Conservative Protestants are less likely to use porn than the general population, although (like the general population) their use of porn is rising because the Internet is improving porn access. However, conservative Protestants who use porn face much more severe mental health consequences than people of other denominations or religions who use porn.

They face overwhelming shame, guilt, and stigma. Some are socially isolated because they can’t admit their porn use; this particularly affects women, who are believed not to be visual and not to be tempted by porn, and therefore have a hard time finding support and are often stigmatized as ‘unfeminine’ for needing it. Others find their entire moral life reduced to porn use: male ‘accountability groups’ often discuss only porn, masturbation, and lust without ever thinking about any of the other sins that men commit; some people even have difficulty thinking about anything they might do wrong that isn’t porn use. Porn users avoid volunteering, service, missionary work, or helping out at church because they think they’re too broken to be allowed to participate in Christian life. Many even avoid praying, reading the Bible, or participating in church services. One interviewee says:

[D]uring that time I become a burden to god, too. It’s like ‘yeah, I love you. And you know, I died for you. But really I’m just tolerating you right now because I made a commitment to myself and I have to.'”

Because porn use is conceived of within conservative Protestant culture as a form of cheating, spouses experience tremendous jealousy and betrayal when they find out. People can’t talk to their spouses about their porn use and get support in quitting, because it is perceived as such a betrayal; the deception can poison a relationship. The discovery of a spouse’s porn use often leads to threats or even the reality of divorce, even when the marriage is otherwise happy.

My takeaways from this ethnography are twofold.

First, the corrosive effects of purity culture are hard to overstate. When you make a single common sin a litmus test of how a person is doing morally, it is really bad for people. People experience feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. They are isolated from friends and loved ones. It doesn’t even serve to make the person more ethical. Purity culture takes away your ability to see the moral life holistically. While you’re struggling with the fact that you jerk off to porn for fifteen minutes once a week, you might ignore the fact that you shout at your wife, or that you’re lazy at work, or that you go on luxurious vacations instead of helping the poor– all of which may very well be more serious sins. You can feel like you “don’t deserve” to do the things that give you strength to be a better person: the Christian avoids praying and reading the Bible, but a secular person might avoid therapy, journaling, meditation, reading inspiring books, going to meetups of people who share their values, etc.

Effective altruism has (so far) put a lot of thought into avoiding creating a purity culture, although often not in those terms. However, I think this is something well worth thinking about more.

Second, I have often had a hard time harmonizing my positive personal experience of porn with the research that suggests negative effects of porn use. Addicted to Love’s model, I think, explains this very well. The thing that causes negative effects of porn is not the porn itself; it’s the context and the use to which you put porn. Addicted to Love finds that porn use is correlated with depression if and only if you believe that pornography use is morally wrong. Doing things that go against your values makes you feel guilt and shame. If your partner feels betrayed by your pornography use or worries that it means you don’t find them attractive anymore, it is likely to make your relationship worse; watching porn together and using it as a springboard to discuss your sexual fantasies is likely to make it better.

You can expand this model further. A culture around porn which clearly discusses which aspects of porn are reality and which fantasy leads to accurate beliefs about sex; in the absence of such a culture, people might try unlubed anal sex. (Ouch.) In a sex-positive culture of experimentation and open communication, being interested in more sexual acts means you have more sexual variety; in a more sex-negative culture, it can lead to frustration and even sexual coercion. Isolating yourself in your bedroom to jerk off for four hours is different from writing a porny giftfic for a friend. Saying what effects porn has in the abstract is like saying what effects Marvel movies have in the abstract; you have to consider the individual, the culture, and their relationship to porn.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing: At some point Ursula K. Le Guin is going to really truly publish her last book, but apparently not yet. Conversations on Writing is an interview with Le Guin about writing; like all Le Guin’s writing, her compassion and wisdom is palpable, even when I disagree with her. By far the most delightful part of the book is a short story Le Guin wrote about Zombie Michael Chabon infecting literary writers with genre, but the rest is well worth your time.

An Informal History of the Hugos: This book is baffling. I have no idea what the target audience is. Jo Walton briefly talks about her opinions of the Hugo nominees for each year, lists off the titles of various books that might otherwise be nominated, and says whether she thinks the right one won. Since I have usually heard of half of the nominees and very few of the non-nominated books each year, this is incredibly boring.

Fiction 

Space Opera: This is… an incredibly weird book. It’s a Douglas Adams pastiche where aliens decide which newly contacted species are sapient by having them compete in galactic Eurovision; if they come in last place, they’ll get destroyed. Unfortunately, the list of musicians who might have a chance of not coming in last was generated by a time traveling alien who got confused, so only one of them is alive: a washed-up, drunken David Bowie/Freddie Mercury expy who hasn’t had a hit in a decade and has to get the band back together to save humanity.

Cat Valente is one of the best prose stylists in modern science fiction, and she uses all her talent to make Space Opera’s twee whimsy, with a core of jaded cynicism. This is the sort of book that drives me to metaphor. Reading the book is like eating twenty pounds of cupcake frosting: you enjoy the individual bites, but you eventually want something more substantial, and the whole experience makes you kind of sick. The book itself is like building the Statue of Liberty out of cheese: you set a goal and you accomplished it and it’s hard to come up with criticisms that aren’t ‘instead of doing this you should have done a different thing,’ but… maybe instead of this you should have done a different thing.

That said, I’m probably going to vote it #1 for the Hugos this year. I didn’t particularly like Space Opera, I don’t recommend it, but there’s something about “I thought the surprise mpreg reveal in the climax was superfluous” that captures the anarchic spirit of science fiction, and I think that’s what we should honor with our awards. And if it’s the sort of book you like you’ll really like it.

Trail of Lightning: Meh. I don’t like action heroes who are brooding and violent and angry and never talk about their feelings and you have to be SYMPATHETIC to them because they are TRAUMATIZED. Manpain bores me. It does not actually bore me any less if the person experiencing manpain is a Native American woman.

The Calculating Stars: I gave up in disgust after the first part, so take this review with a grain of salt, but: UGH. The author wants to write an alternate history where a giant meteorite landed on Washington D. C. in the 1950s, which kicked off catastrophic global warming, and the only way to save humanity is to go to a moon colony. Fine. Okay. I am willing to suspend disbelief about ‘moon colony’ being a better option than ‘geoengineering’ if only because of the Rule of Cool.

But the author clearly fails to think about the internal life of her villains for even a second. The president’s advisers respond to the protagonist’s report that catastrophic global warming is going to happen with spontaneous climate-change denialist tropes literally five minutes after she delivers it, even though this makes zero sense. No one would think it’s absurd and laughable that a meteorite that destroyed DC would have other catastrophic effects, and climate change denialism is a thing because fossil fuel companies have spent tons of money spreading doubt, a thing which they would have no reason to do in setting and which they could not possibly have pulled off in five minutes.

The protagonist, a former member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in WWII, is forbidden to fly a plane to rescue refugees because “nursing is more feminine,” despite the fact that this is literally the sort of thing the WASPs did in WWII and a meteorite just destroyed Washington DC. Women are forbidden from becoming astronauts because they will become hysterical in space; a female character points out that you can’t have a self-sustaining moon colony without women, but it is never discussed what the fuck the villains think about this obvious objection.

Look, I’m not saying that the villains’ behavior is completely unreasonable. (Okay, the climate change denialism is unreasonable and clearly just put in to make a political point.) Maybe the protagonist is forbidden from rescuing refugees by one guy, who’s not very competent at running a military and is only doing it because the entire hierarchy fell apart because DC got a meteor dropped on it, and who’s clinging desperately to normality in the wake of an abnormal situation. Maybe they’re planning to include women in later flights but don’t want to include them right away because they’re concerned about not having developed the safety equipment to deal with their hysteria. But you have to justify this! You can’t just be like “sexists are sexist because they are sexist, this is completely causeless behavior totally unaffected by circumstances or incentives.” That’s not how people work.

Record of A Spaceborn Few: Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on a former generation ship, a few generations after first contact, which currently orbits around a star. The sociological worldbuilding is rich and complex. A great deal of care and thought has been put into the sort of society a generation ship would have: the religious beliefs, the tensions, the economics, the leisure activities, the social arrangements.

It would be misleading to say nothing happens. Many things happen. But there is not very much in the way of plot. It is essentially the events that happen over the course of a particularly interesting few months in the lives of a dozen ordinary people on the generation ship. It is a slice-of-life story; it is as interested in parenting struggles and teenagers fighting with their best friends as it is in starship accidents or the alien ethnographer studying the human colony.

I have literally been craving this book for the past fifteen years. (I really really want it in post-apocalyptic, but you can’t have everything.) If slice-of-life SF with rich sociological worldbuilding is your thing, you’ll really love it.