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.

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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.

Link Post for June

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Social Justice

Being taught by Milton Friedman makes you less likely to give long sentences on certain kinds of criminal activity, particularly around like drug crimes.”

Simultaneously “I understand why this was your best choice in this situation” and “aaaawkward”: “To top it all off, reports that Disney had been “browning up” some actors on set… drew a swift response from Disney, noting… that “diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.””

A man whose mother has a severe intellectual disability discusses his relationship with her.

[cw: child sexual abuse] Why Honduran women are being driven to the US border. (Sample excerpt: “When doctors told [12-year-old] Sofia she was pregnant and explained that pregnancy meant she was going to have a baby, Sofia, in her soft, small voice, asked whether she could have a doll instead.”)

From the ‘social model of disability’ files: “In theory, a social definition of infertility—one laid out in terms of intentions and identities rather than diseases and disabilities—circumvents these problems. But it creates complexities of its own. Last year, researchers from Yale and the University of Haifa, in Israel, shared the results of a study in which they asked a hundred and fifty women who have frozen their eggs to explain their motivations. The overwhelming majority of the women cited what might be called “man problems,” including divorces, breakups, and male partners who weren’t yet ready to have children. It takes a conceptual leap to see a recent divorcée and a woman with endometriosis as equally infertile, but Campo-Engelstein argues that they are “similar enough that they should be treated the same.””

Effective Altruism

Is effective altruism growing? “Overall, the decline in people first discovering EA (reading) and the growth of donations / career changes (doing) makes sense, as it is likely the result of the intentional effort across several groups and individuals in EA over the past few years to focus on high-fidelity messaging and growing the impact of pre-existing EAs and deliberate decisions to stop mass marketing, Facebook advertising, etc. The hope is that while this may bring in fewer total people, the people it does bring in will be much higher quality on average.”

The uses of life history classification in understanding wild animal welfare. A thoughtful and nuanced review. (I’m cited!)

A foundational result on the question of how much wild animals suffer is wrong. I am mentioning this 10% because it’s cool and 90% to brag about my role as a catalyst here. (I complained at everyone I could find that this result didn’t make any sense because I was bad at math, and then it turned out to not make any sense because it was wrong.)

Rethink Priorities has an excellent in-depth summary of the evidence that invertebrates suffer, which incidentally explains a lot of really foundational issues related to animal consciousnes in general. Check it out!

Rationality (Practice)

Visualizations of different meanings of probability.

This LW post makes an interesting point about the difference between the norms and goals of science, but I’m mostly linking for the worldbuilding about ALIEN SCIENCE.

People view things as abstractions rather than as atoms, which causes them to miss ways they can interact with things to reach their goals. My summary is boring but the list of examples is very interesting and I really do recommend checking it out.

Subtle errors people make with the concept of conservation of expected evidence.

Weird situations with reasonable explanations, or “why 90% sure is way less sure than you think it is.”

List of examples where one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Again, the list of examples is incredibly interesting and much better than my summary.

The uses of divination.

Moral realism and moral nonrealism lead to very similar behavior for different reasons.

Rationality (Community)

I don’t agree with everything Ray Arnold wrote about the village versus the mission, but I think he crystallizes for me some important distinctions about the rationality community and moves the interminable conversations about rationalist community norms forward.

Again mostly of interest to rationality community people: rabbit hunts and stag hunts as a metaphor for community participation.

Parenting

Why you should sometimes change your mind after saying ‘no’. I follow this advice personally. My son Viktor only knows a few words and therefore has a hard time expressing preferences without crying. A strict ‘no giving in to crying’ rule would basically mean I couldn’t reassess my decision based on the strength of Viktor’s desires. I am probably going to enforce a ‘no giving in to tantrums’ rule once he’s old enough to express preferences with words, but until then ignoring his communication just seems unethical.

Just Plain Neat

Overzealous cleaner ruins artwork worth 690,000 pounds.

Types of loneliness.

The Secret Rebellion Of Amelia Bedelia, The Bartleby Of Domestic Work.

This is so profoundly my shit that I honestly can’t believe it’s a real article: Georgette Heyer’s crossdressing novels as forced masculinization sexual fantasies.

Why AO3 is one of the best-organized sites on the Internet. “One wrangler, who goes by the handle spacegandalf, pointed me to the example of a character from an audio drama called The Penumbra Podcast who didn’t have an official name in text for several episodes after he was introduced. Yet people were writing fanfic—and trying to tag it by character—before they had any name to tag it with. Because spacegandalf had listened to this podcast—AO3 deliberately recruits and assigns tag wranglers who are members of the fandoms that they wrangle for—they had the necessary context to know that “Big Guy Jacket Man Or Whatever His Name Is” referred to the same person as his slightly more official moniker “the Man In the Brown Jacket” and his later, official name, Jet Sikuliaq (and that none of these names should be confused with a different mysteriously named character from a different audio drama, the Man in the Tan Jacket from Welcome to Night Vale).

This was recommended to me as one of the best profiles ever written, and it really is: the story of Ricky Jay, one of the greatest living magicians.

Questions For Our Opponents, Answered

If there’s one thing I love, it’s answering strawmanny questions. Gender critical philosopher Kathleen Stock wrote an article in which she provided several questions that she felt anti-gender-critical feminists should answer. I will do so to the best of my ability.

  1. What, metaphysically speaking, is gender identity? What ensures that when Person 1 identifies as X and Person 2 identifies as X they are identifying as the same thing?

The concept of “gender identity” is unnecessary for transness to be a thing. For example, one might argue for a principle of “consensual gender” or “gender exit rights”: if a person dislikes their current social gender, they should be allowed to have a new one. Under this principle, it would not matter why a person chooses to transition.

Observably, nearly everyone who transitions does so because of a deep-seated desire to be a different gender. There is often a physical aspect: there’s a longing for the primary and secondary sexual characteristics associated with a different sex. There is often also a social aspect: there is a longing to be seen as a different gender, to be referred to with an appropriately gendered name and pronouns, to wear certain clothes, to be treated as that gender even in the ways which are generally awful. (There is a very common trans girl experience of being street-harassed for the first time and going ‘I passed!’ Street harassment is, obviously, stressful and frightening for cis and trans women alike, but for trans women it is often mingled with the deep-seated desire to be properly gendered.)

You can characterize this phenomenon as a “gender identity” if you like. I personally prefer the “gender dysphoria” terminology. We don’t know yet why people are this way, but clearly they are.

2. Do you think that ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ gender stereotypes are bad and should be changed and/or reduced? If so, do you also think we should accept an account of ‘woman’ that ties womanhood to a feeling that the gender stereotypes typically associated with being female apply to oneself? Do you see a tension there? How does this strategy avoid conservatively reinforcing the association of womanhood with femininity?

Many transgender women are not feminine; many transgender men are not masculine. It is not at all uncommon for a transgender man to want to be a feminine man such as David Bowie; it is not at all uncommon for a transgender woman to listen to Ring of Keys with longing in her heart.

Asking this question implies a profound disconnection from transgender experiences. A trans man does not want to be a masculine woman, he wants to be a man. A trans woman does not want to be a feminine man, she wants to be a woman. As your very own analysis points out, these are different things.

Do some transgender people articulate their desire to be a particular gender as a desire to be feminine or masculine? Of course. It turns out there is actually no Feminism Test to be allowed to transition. Just as many cis people articulate their understanding of their genders in sexist or regressive ways, so do many transgender people.

Whether or not femininity and womanhood are necessarily linked, they are certainly linked in our culture. A person who desperately wants to be a woman will often desperately want to do things our culture associates with womanhood: to wear dresses and skirts and makeup, to watch My Little Pony, to work in a predominantly feminine occupation, to be allowed to cry. While there is no necessary linkage, that doesn’t mean there is no linkage at all.

3. We think that patriarchy is, definitionally, a system which structurally oppresses females, on the basis of their sex. What do you think patriarchy is? If you think patriarchy is not as we’ve described, do you think there is any system in the world, such as we have just described, whether or not you would call it ‘patriarchy’? If yes, do you think the recognition of this system is politically important? If no, on what grounds do you deny the existence of any such system?

I like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s description of patriarchy in The Woman That Never Evolved as a patrilocal, patrilineal society with male-biased inheritance and an ideology of male authority. (This, of course, means that our society is not precisely a patriarchy, but rather a non-patriarchal society with certain ideological elements carried over from when it was a patriarchy.)

Of course, the “male” in patriarchy is not precisely the same thing as the biological sex male. Many patriarchal societies had third-gendered people who were not treated the same as men or women. Intersex people were generally classified as either male or female.

I believe our society is currently sexist in ways that harm women and ways that harm men (although in general sexism tends to harm men less severely than it harms women). Some forms of sexism, such as discrimination against pregnant people or the understudying of conditions that affect female-sexed people, affect people based on their sex. Some forms of sexism, such as sexual harassment or most forms of job discrimination, affect people based on the gender they are read as. Some forms of sexism, such as shame about being ‘slutty’ or socialization not to speak up about your preferences, affect people based on the gender they are socialized as; the way gender socialization affects trans people is complicated, as many trans people internalize norms applying to their identified gender rather than their assigned gender. I believe ignoring any form of sexism tends to harm your analysis.

4. Do you think facts about male physical development and gendered male socialisation have any causal connection to male violence patterns? If so, do you think this connection generally ceases to operate in the case of late-transitioning trans women? If so, what is your explanation for this fact? Is this an empirical question, in your view?

Sort of baffling that “men are inherently more violent because genetics” is a feminist position now but okay.

Transgender people’s gender socialization is complicated, as I said above. Many transgender people internalize the norms of their identified gender; of course, they are also affected by being raised as their assigned gender. As Stock acknowledges with the phrase “late-transitioning”, many transgender people have lived decades as their identified gender and were socialized as that gender. I believe it is most accurate to characterize trans women’s socialization not as male socialization but as transgender female socialization.

Biomedical transition affects a person’s sex. To the extent that men’s propensity towards violence is caused by testosterone, trans women on HRT would not be affected by it. Surgery which removes the testicles often leaves trans women with lower testosterone levels than cis women. Of course, to the extent that it’s caused by some other factor– a Y chromosome, early-life exposure to testosterone– it would not be affected.

Of course, this is an empirical matter. But the studies need to be conducted carefully. Trans women are a marginalized group; trans women are discriminated against in the workplace, are more likely than cis women to use drugs or do sex work, and experience violent crimes at an elevated level. If not carefully done, studies would show nothing more than the fact that drug addicts, sex workers, and people who can’t get legal jobs do more crimes.

5. If you think that the existence of people with Differences of Sexual Development (sometimes “disorders of sexual development” or “intersex”) shows something about whether trans women are literally women, what is it? Please lay this out clearly, in stages, with no skipping.

Human sex is bimodal. Most people are pretty easily classified as “male” or “female.” (Of course, even people who are unambiguously male or female pretty often have sex characteristics associated with the other sex: dyadic cis women of some ethnicities and with certain medical conditions grow facial hair; some dyadic cis men have breasts. These conditions often cause shame, and people with sex-nonconforming bodies are pressured to change them, often in ways that are expensive or painful. One would hope a gender-critical feminist would be sufficiently concerned about these unfair beauty standards to pause before making fun of the idea that a woman would have a beard.)

However, some people are not easily classified as male or female. We call these people “intersex.” They have some sex characteristics associated with one sex and some sex characteristics associated with a different sex.

Intersex people tend to complicate simplistic definitions of sex. For example, some people believe that a person with no Y chromosome is female, and a person with at least one Y chromosome is male. However, for many purposes, it makes sense to classify an intersex person as a member of a sex different than their chromosomal sex. In some cases, it is best to classify them as a member of the other primary sex: for example, an XY person with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) needs to be screened for breast cancer, just like an XX woman, and the vaginal tissue is elastic, like an XX woman’s. In other cases, it is best to classify them as their own thing: for example, unlike both male-sexed and female-sexed people, people with CAIS are infertile and should have their gonads removed to prevent cancer.

Biomedical transition is an artificially induced intersex condition. Just like naturally intersex people, we complicate a simplistic definition of sex. I have had top surgery and am on testosterone. In some ways, I am best classified as a woman: I can get pregnant. In other ways, I am best classified as a man: I am at very low risk of breast cancer. In still other ways, I am best classified as a third sex: I am at elevated risk for ovarian cancer, and my diabetes risk is between a male-sexed person’s and a female-sexed person’s. I am not literally the same thing as a cisgender man, but for many medical purposes I am best classified as a cisgender man.

6. Do you consider the question of the organisation of public spaces where people get undressed, sleep, or are otherwise vulnerable to aggression: a) a moral question of desert/ rights; or b) a practical question about how best to avoid violence and harm to members of certain groups?

I am unclear on the distinction you are making. Morally, people have a right to use public accommodations, such as bathrooms, hostels, and dormitories. People have a right to be free from violence and fear of violence. People also have a right to keep their private medical information private.

In some cases, these rights may trade off against each other. For example, a woman may be frightened when she sees a butch cis woman whom she reads as a man in the women’s bathroom. However, the butch cis woman also has a right to pee somewhere, and may herself be afraid of using the men’s restroom; she may also find it embarrassing and invalidating to use the men’s room due to her gender presentation.

Similarly, a woman might prefer not to share a locker room with a person who has a penis, even if that person is consistently read as a woman and changes in a stall. However, if the person with a penis used the men’s room, it would reveal to everyone private information about her genitalia and which surgeries she has had performed.

I believe the best way to manage these tradeoffs is to say that (a) everyone is entitled to use public accommodations and (b) people should, in general, use the public accommodation which causes the least trouble and disturbance for everyone involved. In general, this suggests that trans people who are pre-transition or very early in transition should use the accommodations associated with their assigned sex; those who pass more consistently should use the accommodations associated with their identified sex. Trans people should be mindful of the risk of harassment and violence they face in men’s accommodations; this may justify use of the women’s accommodations even if one is regularly read as male, for both trans men and trans women. People should avoid thinking about complete strangers’ genitalia, as that is creepy and invasive. I believe this is a sensible policy and one which was generally followed without problem before the invention of “bathroom bills.”

7. Do you think all spaces such as bathrooms, dormitories, hostels, showers, and prisons, should be completely mixed-sex? (i.e. that there should be no spaces from which trans women and “cis” men can be excluded, in principle?). If not, explain why “cis” men should be kept out of these spaces but not trans women*.

Providing information to complete strangers about your private medical history should not be a requirement to pee. Trans women who are consistently read as female and trans men who are consistently read as male exist. Therefore, at least some trans people should use the public accommodations of their preferred gender.

(Other cases, of course, can be handled on a case-by-case basis, as I suggested above.)

8. If you prefer to advocate for public policy which allows trans women into women-only spaces, rather than advocate for additional, third spaces — on what grounds do you think the former is a preferable option to the latter? Please try to give some consideration to religious women and women who are survivors of male violence in your answer.

Which trans people should be included in a women-only space depends on the purpose of the space. For example, one might create a woman-only munch, which is intended to include the sort of people lesbians would like to have sex with; this space would include cis women, trans women, and trans men. One might create a polycystic ovary syndrome support group, which would include cis women and trans men. One might create a group for people currently living as women, which would include cis women and trans women (and presumably some pre-everything trans men who would be asked to leave once they started to transition). One might have a women’s clothing swap group, which would include cis women and trans women. One might create a support group for cis women unlearning transmisogyny, which would (of course) include only cis women.

There is no substitute for thinking carefully about why a space is women-only and how including trans people would affect your space’s dynamics.

Some survivors of male violence may find penises or people they read as male triggering. However, most survivors of male violence do not. The physical features they find triggering may include certain accents, hair colors or styles, clothing, or physical builds. Is there a reason that the procedures used for women who are triggered by certain physical builds can’t be used for women who are triggered by people they read as certain sexes?

As I discussed above, some cis women are read as men. I myself pass as a man despite being, by Stock’s definitions, a woman. Are all women (or “women”) occasionally read as men to be excluded from women-only spaces that cater to survivors? I feel this is not very supportive to gender-non-conforming cis women or intersex people.

Religions may, of course, create whichever policies they like about transgender people. A space may consider welcomingness to religious people as one of its considerations when deciding what “woman-only” means in its context; this may mean transgender men are excluded from certain polycystic ovary syndrome support groups, while women of certain religions are excluded from others.

I am not aware of any religion that forbids peeing in a room in which people with penises occasionally also pee, but I believe (like kosher laws) perhaps society should not take on the burden of accommodating this.

Traditional Sexual Ethics Are Impossible In The Modern Day

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The recent and thought-provoking Slate Star Codex sequence on cultural evolution has led me to think about traditional sexual ethics, and the fact that it is literally impossible to do them in the modern day.

There are three large changes that have occurred in the past few hundred years, which affect sexual ethics. The first and most obvious is the invention of birth control, which permits people to separate (penis-in-vagina) sex and babies.

It is easy to overstate the importance of birth control. Many effective methods of birth control, such as homosexuality and outercourse, were known since the Paleolithic. The Oneida Community reportedly had a typical use pregnancy rate of 0.5%, more effective than modern birth control pills, with male continence; this is a method known since Biblical times. (Of course, the Oneida Community may have had particularly motivated users, and widespread use may have been less effective.)

Nevertheless, giving people more birth control methods with fewer side effects and no chance of not using them in the heat of the moment likely changes many things about sexual ethics.

Second, children are now a net financial drain on their families. In the developed world, children are always a financial cost for 18 years, and often for longer than twenty; they rarely pay their parents back. However, historically and in the developing world, children often began making a financial contribution as young as seven. It is difficult to estimate how many children are/were involved in child labor and how large their contributions to the household were. However, even today, in large families, teenagers who are not sent to school can often pay for themselves through chores and taking care of younger siblings; there is no reason to believe this was not true in the past. (I am interested in more detailed data and am happy to edit this section with more.)

Finally, and most importantly, child mortality.

Our World In Data provides some interesting graphics about child mortality in the past two hundred years. In summary: in 1800, while there is little data, the best estimates suggest that about 40% of children died before age five. In 2019, in rich countries, less than one percent of children die before age five.

Forty percent is a lot of children. Consider a fairly ordinary traditional Catholic family of five children: in 1800, they would only have had three. A family of ten would, in 1800, only have six children. Even the Duggars’ nineteen children would only have been eleven.

But high child mortality rates affect more than family size. That forty percent isn’t evenly distributed among families; some may bury seventy percent of their children, perhaps because of a series of epidemics or a bad crop year. If all you care about is one of your children surviving to take care of you in your old age, and the mortality rate is less than one percent, you have one child. However, if the mortality rate is forty percent and unevenly distributed, you may have to have many more than two kids to have a chance one of them survives to adulthood.

(The evidence is suggestive that decreasing child mortality tends to decrease fertility, in part for this reason.)

What this means is that practicing truly traditional sexual ethics is literally impossible.

You could stop using birth control, and people do. (Catholics use natural family planning, but natural family planning is itself a fairly recent invention. You could, fortunately, do extended breastfeeding for a break in between pregnancies.) In theory, it is required that you educate your children. In practice, you can homestead in a state that doesn’t check up on homeschoolers much and put your children to work farming or watching their younger siblings as soon as they’re able. It wouldn’t be doing right by your kids– it turns out some knowledge of writing and math and history and science is useful for being alive in the 21st century– but you could do it.

But child mortality is a bitch. “Not using birth control” is unpopular, and “educationally neglect your children in order to live on a homestead” is unpopular, but “forty percent of your children die” is more unpopular than either of those. There exist some religions that don’t use modern medicine, but you’re never going to get particularly widespread uptake.

But even if you are a Christian Scientist homeschooler who doesn’t use birth control, you’re still not going to get to the environment that traditional sexual ethics evolved for. Many of that forty percent died in epidemics, and most of the diseases they died of have been eradicated in the United States due to vaccines. You are never, ever going to have three of your children die of smallpox in a single month.

These changes are generally agreed upon to be good things among both sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. No one wants forty percent of their children to die. Child labor is generally unpopular. While some social conservatives disapprove of birth control, most social conservatives do not.

But it means that you can’t make the argument “the sexual ethics of 1800 are good because they are traditional and worked for hundreds of years.” Our situation is very very different from the situation in 1800. Children are financial drains instead of investments; children are almost certainly not going to die; it is possible to separate PIV from reproduction with a good deal of reliability.

This is not, of course, to say that the traditional sexual ethics of 1800 are incorrect for modern humans. It may well be that we would all be happiest if divorce and sodomy were illegal, no one used birth control, having sex before marriage if you’re a woman made you a fallen woman, and men are technically not supposed to have sex outside marriage but in practice seeing a prostitute is a common vice among urbanites. But this proposition– in the current situation– has at best a few decades of track record. It cannot take advantage of the argument from tradition, any more than can the proposition that we would all be happiest if gay marriage were legal, divorce were unstigmatized, many people were poly, and birth control is the default.

We knocked over the Chesterton’s Fence, because Chesterton’s Fence was driven through the heart of millions of children and subjected them to a horrible painful death. Now we have to figure out sexual ethics in a fencefree world. Chesterton’s Fence does not apply.

Thing of Things Advice Column

To combat writer’s block, I have decided to start an advice column, which will continue until I am bored of writing an advice column. The first letter is up already. Please send letters to thingofthingsadvice@gmail.com. Letters may be edited for space.

While I am willing to try to give advice on anything, I am most likely to give useful advice on the subjects of sex, kink, dating, polyamory, BPD, neurodivergence more generally, effective altruism, transness, scrupulosity, abuse, spiritual abuse, and parenting persons under the age of 18 months.

How To Write Values Dissonance

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[cw: Rape. Literally the entire post consists of an extensive discussion of societies in which rape is legal and not frowned upon and the justifications they may have for their existence. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then skip this post.]

Occasionally, one might wish to write a story where the characters have values that the readers don’t (values dissonance). Values dissonance can add a lot of realism to your worldbuilding. Every historical culture approved of some things that 21st century Westerners disapprove of, and disapproved of some things that they approved of; it is likely that future cultures would do the same. Similarly, there’s no reason for secondary worlds to agree with us about everything. Values dissonance can also serve a variety of interesting thematic purposes.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to write values dissonance in a way that doesn’t work at all. I am going to criticize the novella Three Worlds Collide by Eliezer Yudkowsky for several reasons: I like it; I have met him and am aware that he was definitely trying for values dissonance and not doing a poor job of advocating for beliefs he holds; the values dissonance is all in a particular passage which can be easily excerpted; and the book is freely available online.

The passage containing values dissonance is the following:

The Confessor held up a hand.  “I mean it, my lord Akon.  It is not polite idealism.  We ancients can’t steer.  We remember too much disaster.  We’re too cautious to dare the bold path forward.  Do you know there was a time when nonconsensual sex was illegal?”

Akon wasn’t sure whether to smile or grimace.  “The Prohibition, right?  During the first century pre-Net?  I expect everyone was glad to have that law taken off the books.  I can’t imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then – flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn’t take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -”

“You need a history refresher, my Lord Administrator.  At some suitably abstract level.  What I’m trying to tell you – and this is not public knowledge – is that we nearly tried to overthrow your government.”

“What?” said Akon.  “The Confessors?

“No, us.  The ones who remembered the ancient world.  Back then we still had our hands on a large share of the capital and tremendous influence in the grant committees.  When our children legalized rape, we thought that the Future had gone wrong.”

Akon’s mouth hung open.  “You were that prude?”

The Confessor shook his head.  “There aren’t any words,” the Confessor said, “there aren’t any words at all, by which I ever could explain to you.  No, it wasn’t prudery.  It was a memory of disaster.”

“Um,” Akon said.  He was trying not to smile.  “I’m trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -”

“Give it up, my lord,” the Confessor said.  He was finally laughing, but there was an undertone of pain to it.  “Without, shall we say, personal experience, you can’t possibly imagine, and there’s no point in trying.”

There are three fundamental problems with the passage here.

First, it gives me absolutely no sense as a reader about how a society with legalized rape works. For example, here are some of the questions I have as a reader about how this society works, with possible answers and further questions:

  • Am I at risk of rape when I’m walking down the street?
    • Yes.
      • What if I have an important appointment, or I’m giving birth?
      • Is ‘I was busy getting raped’ an acceptable reason to delay something or are you supposed to build in time for that?
    • No, because everyone carries pepper spray at all times.
      • Is it legal, or will you be arrested for assault?
      • How does that affect relationships with strangers? Do you have to be continually on your guard that someone might attack you?
    • No, because everyone has been genetically modified to be demisexual.
      • How does that affect other relationships? Casual sex?
      • Is it assumed that the rare non-demisexuals are all rapists?
    • No, because raping strangers is still illegal, only raping acquaintances is legal.
  • Is assault legal?
    • Yes, only if you’re committing a rape at the time.
    • Yes, in general.
    • No, rapes happen using voluntarily ingested drugs/alcohol or social coercion.
  • How often does rape happen? What percentage of people have been raped?
    • Everyone; it happens on about one in three dates.
    • Everyone; it happens about once in your life.
    • About one in five people; rapists are rare, but you know several people who have experienced rape.
    • Almost no one; we’re genetically engineered out antisocial behavior, and rape is only legal to add a little extra thrill to kinky sex.
  • Is there a way to opt out and say you’d prefer raping you be illegal actually?
  • Is there social stigma on rapists?
    • Yes; rape is considered morally wrong but is not illegal.
    • Yes; rape is considered kind of shameful because it implies you can’t get laid the normal way.
    • Rape is completely unmarked. No one notices or cares whether you’ve committed rape.
    • If you’re a rapist it’s VALID. If you’re not a rapist it’s VALID. STOP QUESTIONING PEOPLE’S SEXUAL CHOICES!!!!!!!
    • Actually, rapists are considered to be sexy, thrilling bad boys/girls.
  • Is there social stigma on rape victims?
    • Yes; you shouldn’t have led them on.
    • Yes; you should have been able to defend yourself.
    • Being a rape victim is completely unmarked. No one notices or cares whether you’re a rape victim, including the victim.
    • Rape is an unfortunate thing that happens to people sometimes, like a chronic illness.
    • Being a rape victim is high status and sexy.
  • What happens if you rape someone and you or they get pregnant?
    • Either party can force the other person to get an abortion; both people need to consent for a child to be created.
    • Rape victims can force rapists to get an abortion, but not vice versa.
    • Rapist has to raise the kid.
    • Rape victim has to raise the kid.
    • Who raises the kid is decided by something else
    • You are now married and have to be coparents.
    • Rapist has to pay punitive child support as a penalty for not using birth control.
    • Rapist is fined for nonconsensual child creation.
    • Rapist and rape victim are fined for irresponsible child creation.

And so on and so forth.

These are all very different societies! Eliezer has provided us with any details about how ‘rape is legal’ works– apparently women commit rape as often as men do or more often, rape seems to be something that occurs centrally in a date context– but not nearly enough to understand what it is like to live in a society where rape is legal.

Second, Eliezer provides only the most half-assed justification for why anyone would think this is a good idea. “It makes dates more exciting if you might get raped during them” is the beginning of a justification. But the reader is left with obvious questions. What about the very common preference to feel comfortable and safe on a date? Is that preference uncommon in this universe? Is it considered invalid for some reason? (Why?) Do people who share this preference have some way of getting it met (e.g. particular dating websites)?

In our world, rape is traumatizing. Are people in this society so jaded that running a risk of PTSD is worth it for hot dates? Do they believe (whether or not it’s true) that sexual trauma from rape is caused by thinking sex is something special instead of an ordinary recreational activity? Do they believe rape is only traumatizing because people believe it is traumatizing? Do they have incredibly good PTSD treatment such that being raped results in only a week or two of disability?

To be clear, you don’t have to have a good reason for a particular policy to be enacted. “Rape of people with no political influence is legal” has a perfectly understandable rationale: the people with political influence like committing rapes and are at no risk of becoming rape victims. But you need a reason that makes sense within human psychology.

Finally, I believe good values dissonance, where you really inhabit the alternate perspective, results in the values-dissonant position being appealing. What’s good about the policy? What might make people support it?

One way to make a policy appealing is making the tradeoffs of our current policy salient. For example, research suggests that between a third and half of all women have sexual fantasies in which they are raped. One might imagine a woman from the society where rape is legal arguing that it’s absurd to criminalize her fulfilling her own most cherished sexual fantasy; she is an adult making her own choices, and forcing her to confine her fantasies to her imagination or roleplay is fake consensualism. If she wants to let anyone who likes rape her, she should be allowed to do so.

Another strategy is to play into cognitive biases and moral intuitions that the reader already has. In the example above, I appealed to the reader’s concern for bodily autonomy and distaste for paternalism. A similar strategy might be to criticize making marital rape illegal on the grounds of a right to privacy, which presumably the reader agrees you have.

Making the values-dissonant policy appealing is obviously not necessary to write values dissonance well. But I think it’s worth considering when you’re writing values dissonance.

In Eliezer’s specific case, of course, making Legalized Rape World appealing was necessary, because the setting of Three Worlds Collide is supposed to be better than our current world and the purpose of the rape section is to convey that the better world would contain many things we find morally horrifying (as our ancestors would find gay marriage and integration morally horrifying). If Legalized Rape World is not appealing at all even a little bit, that section has failed in its purpose (as I would argue it did).

Appealing values dissonance allows the reader to understand why people in the past believed evil things. Many people in the past were involved with things we presently consider atrocities and human rights violations: slavery, footbinding, legalized marital rape, the murder of gladiators for public entertainment, animal cruelty, rape as a weapon of war, the slaughter of innocent civilians, and so on and so forth. Presumably this is not because the people of the past lacked the moral fiber we have today; their character and “baseline goodness” is likely similar to our own, and indeed many people who owned slaves or were cruel to animals were otherwise morally admirable. I believe fiction has an ability to build empathy in us for aspects of the human experience which are very distant from our own, and (sadly) being a person who is not exceptionally evil but is complicit or even actively participates in atrocities is a common part of the human experience.

Further, appealing values dissonance may bring to the reader’s attention that certain thought processes they themselves use may be suspect as a means of morally reasoning. I believe this can be a powerful tool for causing readers to question their own moral intuitions. If they can be made to sympathize with things they find appalling due to their feeling that anything disgusting is evil, or their desire for the guilty to be punished, or their sense that people far away don’t matter as much as those who are nearby, perhaps these intuitions are in general suspect.

Also, it’s often intellectually interesting and a fun stretch as a writer, which can be its own justification. Art for art’s sake and all that.

How does one learn to write values dissonance?

In my experience, there is no substitute for reading smart people you disagree with, especially people who believe strange or morally repugnant things. (Presumably conversation would be better, but befriending people who believe morally repugnant things comes with its own problems.)

Old books are sometimes your friend, but not always. For example, Thomas Malthus takes “birth control is worse than a bunch of people dying in a famine” as an axiom with which he does not expect anyone to disagree, which is less than helpful for writing a society which thinks birth control is worse than famine. Better to read the writings of modern traditional Catholics, who have to defend their beliefs. Old books often defend their beliefs with claims the modern reader would find unconvincing. While “the divine right of kings exists because all kings are descended from Old Testament patriarchs” may have been convincing in 1680, it is unlikely to appeal to the modern reader. Conversely, modern people who believe weird things likely defend their beliefs with reference to modern ideas of autonomy, self-determination, fulfillment, etc.

On the other hand, many repugnant beliefs– such as slavery being legal– are difficult to find defenses of in the modern day, and it is necessary to make do with old books. Old books may also help to create a more genuinely alien moral culture, which is desirable for some worldbuilding.

It is important to choose authors you can respect. It is easy to choose authors that make dumb arguments, but that will not result in a society that rings true. (Perhaps that is the issue with Three Worlds Collide; “all rape should be legal” is not a position typically defended by people who make good arguments, so it is difficult to crib from others.)

The DSM-IV Believed Women Didn’t Have Paraphilias

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An interesting fact literally no one believes me about is that until relatively recently it was sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias.

When I say this, people are like “okay, Ozy means some weird, fringe sexologist who believes bizarre things that no one else agrees with, obviously they can’t actually mean that within our lifetimes sexologists believed women don’t have kinks.” But, no, really. Here is a quote from page 524 of the DSM-IV, published in 1994 and updated in 2000:

Except for Sexual Masochism, where the sex ratio is estimated to be 20 males for each female, the other Paraphilias are almost never diagnosed in females, although some cases have been reported.

To be clear, “paraphilia” is a term which includes most of what we’d consider to be kinks; there is no requirement that a paraphilia be obligatory for sexual arousal, and in fact it is explicitly mentioned that some paraphiliacs are aroused by sex where their paraphilia is not included. Paraphilias defined in the DSM-IV include:

  • Sexual Masochism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer”
  • Sexual Sadism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.”
  • Fetishism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects (e.g., female undergarments).”

Special shoutout to transvestic fetishism which literally could not be diagnosed in a woman or a queer man.

The DSM-IV defined ‘paraphilia’ as a diagnosis by inclusion: paraphilias were a set of specific sexual interests, examples given above. The DSM-5 defines ‘paraphilia’ as follows (pg. 685):

The term paraphilia denotes any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners.

(“Phenotypically normal” is intended to exclude visibly physically disabled and transgender people, as well as perhaps members of some other groups. Please note that “paraphilia” and “paraphiliac disorder” are distinguished; a paraphiliac disorder causes mental distress or is a threat to the psychological or physical wellbeing of others. It is possible that what the DSM-5 intends is that, for example, female crossdressers are all unusually well-adjusted.)

This is what the DSM-5 has to say about the prevalence of paraphilias:

  • “The highest possible lifetime prevalence for voyeuristic disorder is approximately 12% in males and 4% in females.”
  • “The prevalence of exhibitionistic disorder in females is even more uncertain but is generally believed to be much lower than in males.”
  • “It has been estimated that 2.2% of males and 1.3% of females had been involved in bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission in the past 12 months” [about masochistic disorder]
  • “Fetishistic disorder has not been systematically reported to occur in females. In clinical samples, fetishistic disorder is nearly exclusively reported in males.”
  • “Transvestic disorder is rare in males and extremely rare in females.”
  • Silence about the prevalence of sexual sadism in women.

This is definitely an improvement on the insistence that women essentially never have paraphilias other than masochism, which has twenty men for every woman (!); still, there is an insistence that the paraphilias are extraordinarily rare in women.

Why was this a sexological consensus? I present a few hypotheses.

First, most research on paraphilias is conducted on a sex-offender population. For various reasons, women are less likely to be sex offenders. Sexual crimes by women may be underreported and underprosecuted; women may also be legitimately less likely to engage in many sex offenses.

Second, the definition of ‘paraphilia’ is androcentric. Consider omegaverse. “I get off on a man going into heat and then getting knocked up by another man with a dog dick” is certainly a sexual interest in something other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners. However, it does not fit in any of the current paraphilias. Conversely, there are paraphilias for sexual interests that are more typically male, such as an interest in jerking off into a shoe. This is likely to be a self-perpetuating problem; since paraphilias are defined androcentrically, paraphilias are underdiagnosed in women, and there is no way for psychiatrists to discover that they should correct the definitions.

Third, there is a lot of stigma on women admitting their sexuality, and many women would feel reluctant admitting their sexual interests to a psychiatrist or even on an anonymous survey. (As a very obvious example, studies consistently report heterosexual men having a higher mean number of sexual partners than heterosexual women.)

Fourth and most importantly, women are less likely than men to be aware of what their kinks are, especially before the present day. There are both biological and cultural reasons for this. Biologically, if one has a penis, arousal is more obvious and the mechanics of masturbation are more intuitive. Having a male-typical level of testosterone also usually gives you more interest in sex than having a female-typical level of testosterone does. Culturally, women’s sexuality tends to be shamed and stigmatized as “slutty.” Female sexual exploration and curiosity tends not to be encouraged as much as male sexual exploration and curiosity, particularly historically.

Among all age groups, women are both less likely to have ever masturbated and less likely to have masturbated in the past year. It is likely that many women who have never masturbated or who masturbate rarely also don’t sexually fantasize or fantasize rarely. They may have completely failed to notice what their kinks are.

The self-hating man with a paraphilia might go to a psychiatrist for help fixing himself. The self-hating female woman with a paraphilia might very well never realize she has a paraphilia and instead conclude that she just doesn’t like sex that much.

How did this change? Why, in the past thirty years, have we gone from “women don’t have paraphilias” to “don’t be ridiculous, Ozy, of course it wasn’t sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias”?

I believe the answer is our friend the Internet.

Perhaps due to sexual stigma, women seem particularly averse to buying porn. In 1970, if a woman wished to purchase erotic literature, she would have to go to a literal physical store and buy it from an actual shop clerk and then maybe display it on her actual shelves where people could see it and judge her. Today, all she has to do is search on Amazon and download The Devil: Devil’s Playground Duet #1 to her Kindle and literally no one will have any idea.

We’ve seen an explosion in the past twenty years of art, erotica and porn aimed at women. I talk about fandom a lot, but I think it’s equally obvious in the romance novel world: since the development of the Kindle, there have been a lot more erotic romance novels with more and filthier sex that caters more directly to common female interests. This is a self-perpetuating cycle. If you have porn that’s catering to you– porn with sexy men in it rather than sexy women, for example– you’re more likely to notice the sorts of things you get off on.

Cards on the table: I suspect that, while men might be more likely to have certain paraphilias and women might be more likely to have certain other paraphilias, women and men are equally likely to have intense, persistent interests in sexual activities other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners. I believe, in the next few decades as the number of people who had access to porn as teenagers increases, we will see more and more women with paraphilias, and this fact will become obvious.