Secret Blog Post on Patreon

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People who have subscribed to my Patreon at the $3 and up level, there is a new secret blog post about parenting. Check it out.

Secret blog posts will probably be disproportionately about parenting for the near future, so if that sounds up your alley, $3/month will get you the thing.

You may also notice on the sidebar that you now have the ability to buy my time. Base cost is $20/hour. Tasks people have hired me for so far include getting me to read and critique their writing, hear about their crackpot ideas, give them advice about whether they’re trans, or read a book and write a review of it.

Why Do All The Rationalists Live In The Bay Area?

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[Attention conservation notice: non-rationalist readers, this is incredibly rationalist inside baseball]
[ETA Disclaimer: I know the Seattle rationalist community exists and is cool. However, if the entire Bay Area rationalist community moved to Seattle, many people would probably wind up working at Amazon, and also moving several hundred people is legitimately very hard. Also, the reason I personally am not moving to Seattle is that it seems like it contains far fewer homeschooling parents.]

I have seen several discussions of the fact that rationalists tend to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which it is pointed out that the Bay Area housing market is one of the worst housing markets in the country. It seems somewhat irrational to live in such an expensive place, particularly since many rationalists are also effective altruists, who intend to donate a high percentage of their income. Why do we keep living here?

Well, as Willie Sutton said about robbing banks, because that’s where the money is.

Rationalists are disproportionately likely to work in tech. If you’re a weird person who likes computers– particularly if your school history is kind of checkered– software engineering is your best chance to make four or six times the US median income. Of the top places to be a software engineer taking into account the cost of living, #2 is San Jose and #5 is San Francisco. Somehow I think “the San Franciscans should move to the South Bay” was not precisely what everyone was thinking of (however personally beneficial it would be for me).

But of course there are other places on the list. We could, for instance, all live in Seattle, Raleigh, or Portland (#1, #3, and #4). Why don’t we?

For some people, the answer is obvious. They’re students at UC Berkeley or Stanford; they’re an App Academy graduate who has to spend the next year in San Francisco by their contract; they work at the Center for Effective Altruism, which is going through Y Combinator; they work at Open AI; they work at MIRI and CFAR, which need to be near prospective collaborators (MIRI) and students (CFAR). You add together those groups and you get a pretty substantial rationalist/effective altruist community already.

I’m going to hold off for a bit on talking about why the software engineers don’t move and instead talk about why I don’t move. After all, I write for a living. My job is extremely portable. I don’t even have to change out of my pajamas.

The first problem is that my husband works for Google. I could, I suppose, move away from my husband. But there would be various inconveniences. I was sort of planning on having him take the kid for a while (once we have one) so I could get some uninterrupted alone time. My husband’s love language is physical touch and he would probably go mad being married to someone he couldn’t cuddle. He can go outside with me when I’m agoraphobic, which wouldn’t be possible if we lived in the same place. The airfare costs would be horrendous. And I can’t imagine we’d actually save that much on rent: we currently share a room, and my husband would probably be quite unreasonable and insist on having his own room instead of acquiring another permanent bedmate.

Why don’t we both move? After all, Google has offices in places that aren’t Mountain View.

Well: since I work from home, incidental conversations with housemates are a majority of my face-to-face interaction. It is very easy for me to find new rationalist housemates when I need one; in a city without a rationalist community, I’m more likely to room with some stranger and lose the opportunity for social interaction. I currently live within two hours of all my partners except for one, and they can be easily visited over the course of a weekend. When the baby comes, I’ll be able to get advice and support from my friends who like kids (I have perhaps half a dozen), including my housemate. I expect that at least one of my children will have a developmental disability, and I don’t want to put a developmentally disabled child in public school; my friends are planning on running a group unschool, which means I neither have to sacrifice my career to homeschooling nor cough up tens of thousands of dollars in private-school fees. Events I enjoy (such as sex parties and rationalist seder) occur on a pleasantly regular basis. If I have a nervous breakdown, I expect that people besides my husband will be there to take care of me, and he won’t have to worry about caregiver burnout. If I divorce my husband, I expect to have a couch to sleep on until I get back on my feet.

And I’m relatively lucky! For instance, I prefer to do online brainstorming; if you prefer face-to-face meetups, you have to be close to people. I’m not founding a new nonprofit, startup, or other project; again, living close to your cofounders is really helpful (not to mention that in a community you’re more likely to meet your cofounders). I don’t need referrals for jobs. I have a supportive husband and will be able to solve many of my parenting problems with money; for poor parents, especially single parents, a supportive community can be the difference between good parenting and neglect. And so on and so forth.

It’s important to note that many of the benefits of community are altruistic. Referrals for high-paying jobs, brainstorming, living near cofounders, support from friends that lets you save money, and even the happiness of living near friends– these concretely improve people’s ability to improve the world.

Of course, most people could probably get the majority of these benefits with only five or ten close friends. (Not all of them though: job referrals depend on having a lot of weak ties, nonfrequent and transitory social relationships, which studies have suggested increase wages and aggregate employment. Weak ties are also useful any time you might like to initiate a relationship, such as with a housemate, cofounder, romantic partner, or coparent.) But my friends– much to my great annoyance– insist on not sharing my set of five or ten close friends, and instead having a set of five or ten close friends of their own, which may or may not overlap with mine. The whole thing grows logarithmically. If we want everyone to have friends– and are not just organizing the whole system for my own personal benefit– it’s going to be a group of a couple hundred people at least.

“Okay,” you might say. “So we move the entire community!”

But let’s examine the typical case: a rationalist who works a job at a non-rationalist company. Let’s say you’re a Googler– as many rationalists are– and you’re looking to move to one of the new rationalist hubs of Raleigh or Portland. As I write this blog post, Portland has one Google job open. Raleigh doesn’t seem to have jobs at all, but Chapel Hill has two jobs open. (Information comes from here.) What happens to the second rationalist Googler who wants to move to Portland?

Of course, this is a solvable problem. Perhaps the second rationalist Googler can find some equally high-paying job at some other company in Raleigh. But you are going to have to simultaneously solve problems like this for a hundred people, even assuming you have buy-in from all of them. This is really fucking hard.

It is particularly hard for early-career software engineers. A software engineer with more experience has more power: for instance, they can hold out for a job where they work remote. But someone who is relatively early in their career is going to have a significantly harder time getting a job outside of tech hubs.

(Notably, Seattle is enough of a tech hub that it doesn’t necessarily have this problem, as far as I know. However, many of Seattle’s tech jobs are at Amazon, which has a notoriously awful company culture, and it seems to me it is perfectly rational to avoid it.)

Finally, I have to remark that the expensiveness of the Bay Area housing market is somewhat misleading. Of course renting an entire house is quite expensive, but no one rents an entire house. My husband and I pay a little less than the median American household does for housing, because we live in a two-bedroom one-bath house with two roommates. We could probably move to Raleigh and have roommates there, but Raleigh’s lower rents means it has far less of a group house culture, particularly a child-friendly group house culture. Thus I would be unlikely to find such a good setup with such pleasant people.

Deradicalizing the Romanceless

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[Content warning: misogyny, slurs, sexual coercion]

I.

A definitional issue: I am using the word “incel” here, despite its association with terrible misogynists, because I feel like it is the simplest word to gesture at the group I mean. However, I am not using it to refer solely to terrible misogynists, but instead to any person who has gone an extended period of time without having a romantic partner when they would like to.

I am not using the extreme definitions of “incel” that require people to not have any preferences. While I don’t consider, say, a sixty-year-old man who won’t sleep with women over the age of twenty-three to be incel, I think that most people do have reasonable preferences about values and lifestyle compatibility in their partners, including incel people, and the inability to meet these preferences leads to great loneliness.

Interestingly, sexless people are about as happy as people who have sex. I can think of several reasons why this might be the case: many sexless people are asexual, low libido, or voluntarily celibate; many people who have sex are in coercive or unpleasant sexual relationships, or have to worry about unplanned pregnancy or STIs; many sexless people have close friends and a lot of emotional support, which ameliorates the pain of sexlessness; many people who have sex are still lonely. Nevertheless, I think the problem of inceldom is a genuine issue for those who want romance and can’t have it.

II.

When one discusses incels, one inevitably comes to The Asshole Question: namely, “how come these assholes can get a girlfriend, and we incels can’t?”

The Asshole Question in its strong form– arguing that assholes can all get laid, and that incels are generally nice– is clearly untrue. Some involuntarily celibate people are, frankly, terrible. If one looks at the Incels subreddit, for instance, it is astonishingly full of comments like the following:

When you post close ups of your gaping assholes often with various objects stuck in them, and we jerk off to it and some retards even leave comments, we don’t think to ourselves “wow, what an amazing gorgeous girl.” We think that you’re a disgusting whore and we get off on that. We get kicks out of how pathetic you are while boosting your ego so that you don’t stop.

and

Women can smell Chad genes from a mile away, if Chad locked himself in a bomb shelter, women would break down the door with muli million dollar equipment to extract his semen.

and

But then again, what is a woman? A rather weak creature that is beneath the man. Equipped with less intellectual gifts, not as beatiful or well formed as the human male, repulsive actually. A creature that is 3/4 of its life sick and isnt even possible to satisfy her man at all times. Because nature doesn’t allow it. It’s common knowledge that females are lesser beings.

These aren’t cherrypicked, by the way, I just looked at three of the four top posts when I was writing this section of the blog post. (The fourth was a man who was sad that even an incel woman wouldn’t sleep with him, and did not contain any douchebaggery.)

Now, one might argue that years of loneliness twist people and make them bitter, and that’s not false. But I also know lots of incel and formerly incel men, many of whom have been lonely for years if not decades, and none of them have wound up opining that women are lesser beings and that they get off on how pathetic porn stars are. I would suggest that if your response to emotional pain is “maybe half of humanity is subhuman”, this probably says more about your character than about your circumstances. Loneliness alone is not enough to make someone a misogynist. Frankly, I think it’s offensive to all the perfectly lovely incels in the world to say so.

The weakest form of the Asshole Question– “why do there exist at least some nice people who can’t find romantic partners when there also exist at least some assholes who can?”– is also easy to answer. Some people are extraordinarily bad at selecting partners, and preferentially select people who treat them like shit. Other people are deceived and wind up accidentally dating assholes. Still other people are willing to put up with a douchebag who has money, good looks, or high status.

But there’s an intermediate question, which is the one I think people are usually asking. They say something like “even given that some nice people find romantic partners and some assholes don’t, I think that assholes in general are more likely to find romantic partners. Why is that?”

III.

The first thing to address in that question is whether it’s true.

Scott Alexander writes:

I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently find that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.

If you’re smart, don’t drink much, stay out of fights, display a friendly personality, and have no criminal history – then you are the population most at risk of being miserable and alone. “At risk” doesn’t mean “for sure”, any more than every single smoker gets lung cancer and every single nonsmoker lives to a ripe old age – but your odds get worse. In other words, everything that “nice guys” complain of is pretty darned accurate. But that shouldn’t be too hard to guess…

I am going to be a little bit unfair to Scott here. He admits he’s using virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romanceless statistics, and I don’t exactly have any good way of measuring inceldom either.

Now that I’ve admitted I’m being unfair… I would like to point out that “having a high IQ” and “being an MIT graduate student” have no relationship with whether you’re an asshole at all. There is no significant correlation between IQ and agreeableness; there is also no significant correlation between IQ and dark triad personality traits. (I was unfortunately unable to find statistics about the disagreeableness or dark triad-ness of MIT graduate students.) It may perfectly well be that intelligence is sexually unattractive to most people and also people are attracted to nice people. In addition, high-IQ people and MIT grad students may have priorities other than having sex: if you spend all your time solving math problems instead of going to parties, of course you’re more likely to be a virgin.

So let’s look at Big Five and the works of Dr. Beaver. There is a small problem and a big problem with Scott’s statistics. The small problem is that there’s a bunch of sex you’re vastly more likely to have if you’re a terrible person: rape; cheating on your partner; helping someone else cheat on their partner; getting someone drunk or high to have sex with them that they wouldn’t have sober; convincing someone that you love them when you don’t for the purpose of getting laid; “convincing” someone who said “no” at the beginning of the night; and so on. Since presumably terrible people aren’t Captain Planet villains who turn down all the ethical sex because they want to increase the amount of sex-related suffering in the world, we can expect terrible people to have more sexual partners than non-terrible people, all things equal. But I don’t think that’s that large an effect.

The big problem is that sluts are evil.

That is, in general, people who desire lots of sexual partners tend to be disagreeable, lower on honesty-humility, impulsive, risk-taking, avoidant attachment style, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic.

To be clear, only three of the nine questions on the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory are about sexual behavior. The other six are about desire. You can score very highly on the SOI while being a virgin. While I don’t know of any studies that exclude the three behavioral questions, I believe the evidence suggests that people who want lots of sexual partners tend to be jerks.

Imagine a very attractive guy who has no interest in sex outside of committed long-term relationships. He loses his virginity to his high school girlfriend, dates a girl for a while in college but breaks up with her a year after graduation, dates around for a bit but doesn’t sleep with anyone he’s dating, meets his wife at 26, dates her for two years, is engaged to her for one year, and marries her at the median age of 29. Afterward, he is monogamous and does not divorce; his wife outlives him. He has had three lifetime sexual partners, well below the average for men. But that’s about his interest level, not his attractiveness. He could have had casual sex if he wanted, but since he didn’t want casual sex, his sexual partner count is lower.

IV.

I feel like a big problem is that people tend to combine “casual sex” and “dating” into a single category, when in reality they’re quite separate issues. Men, as a group, are more interested than women, as a group, in casual sex– possibly because casual sex is less enjoyable for women, possibly because women are more likely to fear social stigma and violence, possibly because women are at higher risk of STIs and pregnancy, and possibly because women typically find sex with strangers a less appetizing prospect. Since most men are heterosexual, it is significantly easier for women to obtain casual sex than it is for men to obtain casual sex.

However, women being able to easily obtain casual sex is mostly a product of them not wanting casual sex. It’s not really an advantage to be able to easily get something you don’t want anyway. “Yay! It is super-easy for you to risk serious health problems, stigma, and violence in order to have a physically and emotionally unpleasant experience! Lucky!” While the situation is great for women who like casual sex (boy, is it ever), it’s not that much of an advantage for women as a group.

And, frankly, casual sex isn’t what most incels want either. If they did, they’d just hire a sex worker. Admittedly, hiring a sex worker is not particularly validating of one’s attractiveness, but neither is fucking the guy who messaged everyone in a fifty-mile radius on OKCupid, and the sex worker is no doubt a good deal more attractive. But hiring a sex worker won’t give incels what they want, because what they usually want– quite reasonably!– is love, affection, romance, and someone to share their lives with.

And love, affection, and romance are far more gender-balanced markets.

I will use marriage as a proxy for long-term relationships, as it is easier to find statistics, and marriage is the end goal of long-term relationships for most people anyway. There are approximately as many men as there are women. There seem to be more exclusively gay men than exclusively gay women in the US; depending on definition, men may also be more likely to be asexual. Marriage is generally monogamous, which means that for every married man there is exactly one married woman.  Consensual non-monogamy is relatively rare and MMF triads are not notably less common than FFM triads– certainly not enough to have a notable effect on the dating market. Non-consensual non-monogamy is more common, but it’s unclear to me how often a cheating person monopolizes two people’s affections (as opposed to two married people cheating on their spouses with each other, casual sex, etc.) While men are more likely to cheat than women, this may not lead to an imbalance if (a) women are lying, (b) men are more likely to have casual sex or hire a sex worker, or (c) the men are all cheating on their spouses with the same small pool of women. For the sake of analysis, I’m going to act like this isn’t an issue, but if you have less uncertain opinions than mine about cheating you may come to different conclusions.

So the next issue is how much people desire to get married; maybe men as a group want to get married and women as a group can take or leave it, just like men as a group want casual sex and women as a group can take or leave it. Among never-married young adults, men and women are equally likely to say that they would like to get married; women age 18-34 are more likely than men in the same age group to say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their life. Anecdotally, one notes that the vast majority of How To Get A Partner magazines and self-help books are aimed at women. Therefore, I think that– if anything– men as a group are the ones dragging their feet about long-term relationships.

However, my analysis is a society-wide analysis. It is very possible that there are subcultural imbalances.

Consider the book Promises I Can Keep (summary here). Poor women in working-class neighborhoods tend not to get married. This is because there is a tremendous shortage of men who meet very reasonable, basic requirements like “is not a felon” and “has a job” and “does not beat me” and “is not an alcoholic.” Because these women value having children a lot and they don’t have any good options for husbands, they tend to become single moms; they see no realistic prospect for their children to have a committed, loving father.

A lot of the incels I know don’t commit crimes or drink, don’t beat up their partners, and not only have jobs but also make an above-average income. So why aren’t they marrying the women of Promises I Can Keep? Well, first of all, they’re unlikely to meet those women: both the women of Promises I Can Keep and my friends typically spend time around people of their own class background. They probably don’t even use the same dating sites.

Even if they do meet, they might not be particularly interested in each other. My friends probably don’t want to help raise two or three children that are not genetically related to them, and they certainly don’t want to raise children with someone who thinks not spanking is neglectful. They probably don’t want to devote a significant fraction of their income to helping their wife’s poor relatives fix their cars and pay the rent. They don’t want a partner who thinks that homeopathy is an appropriate treatment and that her new husband is due to God rewarding her for donating to her church. They would like a partner who reads books and blogs and who is able to participate in a discussion about trolley problems or Magic: the Gathering. I don’t know the culture of the women of Promises I Can Keep well enough to know what their dealbreakers about my friends are (see: spending time around people of your own class background), but I’m pretty sure they also have them.

To be clear, these are all totally reasonable preferences to have! In fact, it is good to have these preferences! You should marry someone whom you can talk to and who shares your interests and values and worldview; you shouldn’t raise children with someone unless you agree on parenting philosophy, at least in broad strokes; if you’d feel super-resentful about some aspect of your relationship, don’t get in the relationship. (Of course, it’s also great if you do want to help raise your partner’s children and help their impoverished relatives.) But it does mean that my friends and the women of Promises I Can Keep are unlikely to have happy relationships with each other.

For every man who can’t find a partner, there is approximately one woman who also can’t find a partner. (This is pretty obvious in the Promises I Can Keep case, which is balanced by a large number of incel or situationally homosexual men from those neighborhoods, who are in prison.) However, it is very unlikely that you will be able to have a happy relationship with her, or otherwise you already would. Sorry.

V.

The other important aspect of the incel problem is shyness. In my anecdotal experience, it is hard to overestimate the importance of shyness in keeping incel people of the sort who are likely to read this blog post incel.

Lots of incel people don’t have many friends to begin with, so they don’t get a lot of opportunities to meet people they might want to date in the first place. The odds are very much not in their favor. Even if they do have friends, lots of incels are shy specifically about flirting: they’re afraid of being seen as creepy or making people feel uncomfortable; they don’t know what to do, and it’s frightening. It is extremely common in my experience for incels to be so scared of flirting that they accidentally give off I-am-not-enjoying-this-please-stop body language, which means that even getting hit on isn’t necessarily a solution; interested people are likely to notice that they’re uncomfortable and disengage.

Incels are often advised that confidence is attractive. I’m not sure if this is true in the general case, but for incels I think that becoming more confident will, in fact, increase their chances of getting laid. This isn’t because people find confidence attractive (although many people do), but instead because incels are constantly self-sabotaging because of their own insecurity. Of course, being confident in your own attractiveness as an incel is sort of like trying to fly by tugging firmly on your shoelaces.

This is another reason why you can have both women and men who can’t find a romantic partner. If they never meet each other because they’re both holed up in their rooms reading the Kingkiller Chronicles, if they never hit on each other because they’re afraid of coming off as creepy, or if one of them works up the nerve to flirt with the other only to flee because they assume the other’s terrified body language is a rejection, you can have two people who would have a quite happy relationship both be lonely.

VI.

The worst part of the incel problem is how hard redistribution is.

Like, it’s super-easy to redistribute money. You take it from rich people and give it from poor people. There are, of course, implementation problems, but the principle is simple.

But you can’t really redistribute love.

If it were possible, I would happily take the Caring What We Can Pledge to give ten percent of the love and care I experience to those in need. But I can’t. My husband and my friends love me; there is no way to make their love for me become love of someone else. And I’ve learned that providing emotional support to someone out of obligation, when I don’t like them as a person, leads to burnout which leaves them worse off than they were when they started. Besides, most people want to be loved for themselves and not treated as an object of pity.

It still saddens me.

Against Blanchardianism

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[content warning: mentions of transphobic violence, slurs]

My understanding of transness bears certain similarities to those of the Blanchardians I know. I suspect that trans people fall broadly into two types, although as always sharp binaries erase the experiences of many people. However, I think that their proposed etiologies are absurdly incorrect. I believe that HSTS-subtype trans people experience gender dysphoria and are not simply transitioning as part of a rational decision, and I believe that autogenderphile-subtype trans people do not primarily transition because of a sexual fetish.

My true rejection of Blanchardian etiologies is that they don’t describe my experiences at all. Of course, I don’t expect this to convince people who aren’t me.

Regarding the HSTS subtype: I agree that it is likely that HSTS-subtype trans people are on a continuum with gender-non-conforming gay people. I too am struck by the similarity between stone butches and trans men, and by the similarity between drag queens (particularly historically) and trans women. The sharp divisions between these groups seem to me to be as much a political construct as an accurate description of empirical reality (read David Valentine’s excellent Imagining Transgender for more). There is an incentive for both trans people and gay people to support this separation. It is far easier to advocate for trans people’s rights if transness is disconnected from icky sex stuff. And gay people (particularly gay men) have a lot to gain from distancing themselves from the victims of transmisogyny.

Of course, people currently understand themselves as either a trans woman or a gender-non-conforming gay man, either a butch lesbian or a trans man. The categories we have available influence our behavior and self-understandings, and lead to a very real difference between butch lesbians and trans men in present-day queer culture. However, this is not true historically. Either we or the people forty years ago have to be wrong, and it seems quite likely to me that the answer is “us”.

That said, it seems to me that the HSTS theory– which generally implies that transition is a rational decision made because it is easier to get through life as a passing straight trans woman than as a flamboyant gay man– neglects the reality of gender dysphoria. It’s true that it’s hard to draw a firm line where a strong desire to be gender-non-conforming transforms into gender dysphoria. And it’s true that many people, particularly historically, chose to manage their dysphoria through being a drag queen, stone butch, etc., and that whether one becomes a stone butch or a trans man probably depends in part on which one gives you the best other life outcomes. But nevertheless there are many teenagers thrown out of homes whose parents would be fine with a faggot but not a tranny. And while “no fats no fems” is a trend in gay culture, gay men are mostly not going to straight-up assault or murder you for having sex with them as a feminine gay guy, while many straight men will. Conversely, there exist feminine gay men in Iran who have not transitioned, even though it is clearly better to be a straight trans woman in Iran than a feminine gay man. It seems to me that the only way to explain this is that “desire to live as a particular gender and/or sex for its own sake” is an actual thing which puts its thumb on the scales.

Regarding the autogynephile/autoandrophile subtype: I feel like autogynephilia theories, to succeed, must sail very carefully between Scylla and Charybdis, and so far all such theories I’ve seen have wound up being devoured by the monster or drowning in the whirlpool.

Scylla: In general, people do not disrupt their entire lives out of a solely and purely sexual motivation. People who kink on rape might roleplay rape, but they don’t try to get raped themselves. People with a public-use fetish might get tied up for public use at a play party, but they don’t generally do it on a street corner. I’ve met quite a few people with an impregnation fetish, and to my knowledge they have collectively had one unplanned pregnancy, which was a result of attempting to safely indulge the impregnation fetish and screwing it up.

Of course there are exceptions: some people with a rape fetish commit rape; some people with an impregnation fetish deliberately get impregnated; some people with a bimbo fetish get boob jobs. Perhaps many people are secretly autogenderphiles, but most people don’t transition. Let’s Fermi estimate this: 0.3% of people are trans; perhaps 0.15% are autogenderphiles. I’m going to guess that maybe 1% of people are willing to do something as life-changing as transition to satisfy a fetish. (If you are objecting that this is too low, consider that– unlike, say, rape and impregnation– autogenderphilia cannot be indulged on impulse when one is sexually aroused and not thinking straight and– unlike, say, getting a boob job– it involves a major disruption to one’s personal relationships, including perhaps a divorce and parental rejection. I consider this estimate conservative.)

This estimate would imply that 15% of people have an autogenderphilia fetish, making it one of the most common fetishes among men.  A study of the relative frequency of sexual fetishes suggests that this is not the case: “behavior of others”, the largest category into which autogenderphilia could conceivably be put, is less common than “body parts or features” and “objects associated with the body.” In particular, it appears that autogenderphilia is distinctly less common than foot fetishism, and far less than 15% of the population is interested in foot fetishism.

There are certain exceptions to my “people do not generally disrupt their lives out of sexual motivation.” For instance, people may cheat on their spouses, engage in 24/7 BDSM, or become polyamorous. However, these desires are generally not purely and solely sexual in motivation. A person who cheats on their spouse may find their relationship unfulfilling or be looking for a sense of validation. 24/7 subs generally find submission emotionally satisfying or have a romantic desire for a dominant/submissive relationship. Polyamorous people often value the freedom associated with being poly or not having to limit their partners’ sexual choices. While sexual motivation is no doubt one part of these decisions– a person may be more likely to become poly if they’re sexually aroused by their partner having sex with other people, or more likely to cheat if they’re turned on by the person they plan on cheating with– the emotional and interpersonal components play a more primary role.

From a gender-dysphoria perspective, transition makes sense: even if sexual arousal at the idea of being a particular gender is one aspect of why a person transitions, their gender dysphoria is still the primary motivation. From a perspective which does not accept the validity of gender dysphoria, you have to explain why this is the only sexual fetish that motivates people to this extent.

Charybdis: Researchers like Anne Lawrence argue that autogynephilia should be interpreted as a kind of romantic love which has affectional and attachment-based elements. When sexual arousal at the idea of being a woman fades, trans women may still feel an affectional bond to the reality of being women. Trans women may idealize the female body, as lovers idealize their beloved; trans women prioritize transition highly, as lovers prioritize their love; trans women may transition after some adverse life circumstance, as people use a new love affair to cope with some setback in life; people may find meaning and deep personal transformation in their gender, as they do with love.

I will set aside, for a moment, the argument that through an equal series of comparisons one could prove that the average musician experiences romantic attraction to the idea of being a rock star. (They idealize what being a musician is like, they prioritize playing music, they use music to cope with problems, they find a sense of meaning and personal transformation in music… those rock stars keep taking sexy pictures of themselves and they SAY it’s for the fans, but it’s probably a sign of their deep-seated autorockstarphilia.) A stronger question, for me, is: where are all the other people falling in love with themselves?

There exist trans women who are attracted to red-haired women, have a strong desire to be women, and have no particular interest in being redheads. By extension, there must presumably be men who are attracted to red-haired women, have no particular interest in being women, and have a strong desire to be redheads. Since red hair dye is readily available, these men would have no incentive not to admit that they are in love with themselves as redheads. Why aren’t they?

Maybe people are only capable of falling in love with themselves as a particular gender. This seems strange and arbitrary to me: our culture uses gender as the primary way of classifying people’s sexual attractions, but other cultures didn’t, and there’s no reason to assume that biology cares more about our classification system than the Romans’ active/passive system. But fine. Let’s grant that.

Where are the autoandrophiliac gay men? About 3.5% of the American population is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Assuming again that 0.15% of people are autogenderphiliac, by my reckoning there should be 15,750 lesbian, gay, or bisexual Americans who are romantically in love with themselves (7,650 people who are just lesbian or gay). Fortunately, in this age of the Internet, weird people can find each other. Any group of nearly sixteen thousand people (or about seven thousand five hundred people, if you prefer to exclude bisexuals) ought to have a thriving Internet community, with its own Fetlife groups, tiresome discourse, and extremely niche porn. This community does not appear to actually exist; at best, a small number of autoromantics appear to comment on AVEN, but not in sufficient numbers to get their own forum. (To be clear, I’m not claiming there’s no such thing as autoromanticism; human sexuality is very diverse. I am claiming that it seems extraordinarily rare, far rarer than would be required to explain this theory.)

I have occasionally heard speculation that gay male bodybuilders are autoandrophiles. It seems to me that if that were the case it would be commonly known in gay male bodybuilder communities that many gay male bodybuilders are literally in love with themselves. Again, why would they hide it? It’s not like a gatekeeper is going to take away their squat rack if they don’t.

Finally, the autogynephilia hypothesis fails to explain one of the most striking facts about type-two transgender people, their distinctive personalities. The type-two personality could be characterized as “broader autism phenotype”, “nerdy”, or “really really weird”; someone in the Slate Star Codex comments called it “Heinlein protagonists”, which is honestly my favorite characterization. (Right down to the wacky political beliefs!) When I first read about Martine Rothblatt, a highly paid trans lesbian CEO who is trying to make a robot version of her wife so that her wife can live forever, I was like “yeah, that’s the kind of shit queer trans people do”. We’re strange people.

It is very unclear to me why autogynephilia would be the Weird Person Fetish. It’s not that only super-weird people transition: like I said above, autogynephilia is not that common of a fetish. Perhaps all fetishes are more common among super-weird people? Maybe there’s some connection between fetish and personality type? It’s an answerable question in theory, but Blanchardians appear strangely averse to trying to answer it.

Concerning Archive of Our Own

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[content warning: discussion of stories about abuse, child porn, porn of teenagers]

I’ve gotten into a fair number of conversations recently about AO3’s way of dealing with controversial fanfics (i.e. you can use the standard archive warnings so people don’t have to see stories with rape or abuse or underage sex in it, but the moderators don’t delete fanfics), so I thought I should write up my thoughts on the subject.

Legal Issues

One controversial aspect of Archive of Our Own is the fact that they permit stories about underage people having sex with each other, which many people believe to be illegal in the US. Please note that I am not a lawyer and may have gotten many details wrong; I welcome corrections.

The current law which applies to child porn in the US is the PROTECT Act of 2003. Under the PROTECT Act, computer-generated child porn which is indistinguishable from a child is illegal, as are obscene drawings, sculptures, and photographs that depict underage people. Writing stories about underage people having sex is not illegal in the United States, so the vast majority of Archive of Our Own’s content is legally in the clear.

However, AO3 does occasionally host fanart, some of which may involve minors. Is that illegal? It’s unclear.

The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, the previous law about child porn, was judged unconstitutional in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition because it made illegal non-obscene visual depictions of minors having sex. The Supreme Court pointed out that this included Romeo and Juliet, and that it was generally a bad idea to make Shakespeare plays illegal; you can’t ban a bunch of protected speech because you don’t like it. However, the PROTECT Act only criminalizes obscene visual depictions of minors having sex.

A work is obscene if it fails the Miller test:

  • An average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.
  • The work depicts sexual content in a patently offensive way.
  • The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious artistic, literary, political, or scientific value.

So are the depictions of minors having sex on AO3 obscene? It’s unclear to me. There have been legal cases in which people have been prosecuted for cartoon child porn. However, many of them end in a plea deal, which means we don’t have evidence about how a judge would rule. So I think this is a gray area legally. (I have absolutely no legal grounds to support this, but I suspect the typical underage fanart on AO3– which depicts people who are canonically in high school but physically adult and often in canon played by adult actors– is going to be a lot less controversial than the lolicon that most of the case law is about.)

Should AO3 Delete Controversial Works?

I think that AO3 will not be able to delete controversial fanfics in a way that remotely satisfies the people asking them to do so.

First, AO3 is run by volunteers, which puts a limit on how much manpower they can devote to deleting controversial fanfiction. Fanfiction.net, a similar website, bans porn, but it’s not exactly difficult to find porn on Fanfiction.net. By eliminating tagging and incentivizing fanfiction writers to hide the content that might get deleted, it simply increases the likelihood that people who don’t want to see rape or abuse will see it anyway.

Second, there’s an enormous judgment problem with deleting fanfiction. Both broadness and narrowness have serious failure modes.

If your rules are too narrow, people will rules-lawyer their way around them. For instance, the website Literotica has a rule that all characters must be over the age of eighteen. Naturally, there are an improbable number of eighteen-year-old high-school students, and quite a lot of porn in which the lollipop-licking, pigtailed protagonist who doesn’t know what sex is mentions in the first paragraph that she’s eighteen. Obviously, this is not a satisfactory solution for people who don’t want underage porn to be written.

If your rules are too broad, a lot of things become judgment calls. I’m going to talk about something that’s a lot more clear-cut than abuse: one person I’ve talked to suggested that it’s homophobic to ship heterosexual ships with canonically gay characters, and that Archive of Our Own should remove such fanfic. This seems pretty simple: “is this character gay?” definitely seems a lot easier to figure out than “is this relationship abusive?”

So: what do we do about Willow? There is a loud and angry contingent of Buffy fans who believe that Willow is a lesbian who dated a man in high school because she hadn’t come out to herself yet, as many lesbians do. There is an equally loud and angry contingent of Buffy fans who believe that Willow is bisexual because of her obviously loving relationship with Oz, and that Joss Whedon has never heard of the concept of ‘bisexuality’. If you say Oz/Willow is homophobic, you going to get a bunch of people calling you a biphobe, and if you say it isn’t homophobic, you’re going to get a different bunch of people calling you a lesbophobe.

What do we do about Margot Verger? Margot is canonically a lesbian, but she also canonically has sex with Will Graham in order to conceive a Verger heir so that she can murder her abusive brother and get his inheritance. Will we delete fanfiction that explores the implications of something that happened in the show?

Or what about Messala from the movie Ben-Hur? According to the documentary the Celluloid Closet, the director intended Ben-Hur and Messala to have been in a gay relationship; he told the actor playing Messala, but did not tell Charlton Heston, because Charlton Heston was a homophobe. In that case, it’s difficult to tell if Ben-Hur and Messala were even in a canonical gay relationship, much less whether Messala is canonically gay himself. Wait, is it ahistorical to characterize someone as “canonically gay” in a time period with such a different understanding of sexuality? Okay, everyone, get out your Foucault and Halperin, we’re going to have to resolve one of the most fundamental arguments in queer theory before we can figure out which slash fic we’re going to delete…

And frankly “is this character gay?” is much easier to answer than “is this character in an abusive relationship?” A lot of abuse is subtle and contextual. Sometimes abusers call their partners names. Sometimes people’s preferred way of conflict resolution is shouting mean things at each other, and while that certainly isn’t what I’d prefer, these relationships can be perfectly happy and functional and the people involved can resolve their conflicts to their mutual satisfaction. Whether a scene in a story is an instance of the former or the latter is often very unclear, and different people can interpret it differently.

And you can’t trust that these judgment calls will be made in the way you prefer. The whole reason we’re having this discussion is that fandom, in general, has its head up its ass about what ‘abuse’ is. On Archive of Our Own, stalking, sexual coercion, and wildly unethical power dynamics are regularly depicted as romantic without so much as a warning. Even coffeeshop AUs, which are notoriously fluffy, light-hearted, and angst-free, regularly depict workplace sexual harassment– often to the point that it would be an EEOC violation in real life. If Archive of Our Own set about trying to delete all the abusive fic, the deletions would be made by the exact people who keep putting sexual harassment and stalking in all their light and fluffy fanfiction. I do not really trust this to have a positive outcome.

And then there are the people who think that all BDSM is abuse, and I don’t even want to know what trans-exclusive radical feminists would do with the ability to delete all femmeslash with a trans character on the grounds of being homophobic…

I think a much better strategy for people who want to reduce the rate of abusive relationships in fiction is attempting to convince others of their beliefs. This has been successful in the past: for instance, the We’re Not Gay We Just Love Each Other story genre has almost been eliminated. That happened because a lot of people wrote essays along the lines of “it is really fucked up and homophobic to think that men can’t be attractive and masculine if they’re gay, and also the word you’re looking for if someone is attracted to women and men is ‘bisexual’.” If you want people to not write fic in which workplace sexual harassment is depicted as romantic, I think it’s going to be a lot more effective to try to convince people than workplace sexual harassment is not romantic than it is to get those fics deleted.

Fantasies Are Okay

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[This post is a request made by Cliff Pervocracy. One person who backs me on Patreon at the $5 level or above will be randomly selected each month to pick a topic for a post or story I write.]
[content warning: murder fantasies, rape fantasies]

Is it okay to fantasize about killing your boss?

It’s definitely not okay to start researching how to get a gun license and tracking your boss’s schedule to find out when he’ll be alone. That is not fantasizing but, in fact, what is technically called “planning”.

It’s probably not okay to deep in your heart of hearts want to kill your boss, to think it would be a very good thing if he were dead and very satisfying to watch his blood spurt over your hands, and if you had a ring of invisibility you would stab him and watch him die. That is also not fantasizing; it is instead “desiring”. It is not as bad as actually planning to kill your boss, but it’s still not a very good state of affairs, and you should probably think about treating your burnout or moving to a different office.

But what if you just get chewed out by your boss, and as you sit down at your desk you think “what if I stabbed him with that pretentious gold pen he has on his desk. man, if only”– but if anybody offered you the opportunity, you’d turn it down? I mean, he has kids, and he’s a pretty reasonable guy all things considered even if he was unfair today. You wouldn’t actually want to kill him.

That’s fine, it’s normal, and everyone does it.

Maybe not about bosses in particular. Maybe it’s your ex-boyfriend, or your abusive mom, or that asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. Maybe you’re a free-speech absolutist who kind of wishes Nazis would get punched in the face. Maybe you’re not particularly prone to the sin of wrath– some people aren’t– and instead you fantasize about laying in bed all day (even though in reality that’s kind of boring) or eating 24 donuts (even though that would make you sick) or having your neighbor’s fancy car (even though you know it would stop being attractive as soon as you actually own one).

The thing about fantasies is that, in fantasies, you usually only focus on the desirable part and abstract away the parts that make the reality horrifying. You think about the good parts of murdering your boss: you don’t have to put up with that asshole anymore, and you would wreak vengeance for the injustice done you. You don’t think about the grief of your boss’s family, or your husband sobbing as visitor hours at the prison end and he won’t be able to see you for another week, or your tremendous guilt at violating your moral beliefs about murder, or the fact that there’d be a human life, a little world, forever gone.

Or think about the zombie apocalypse. Lots of people enjoy fantasizing about the zombie apocalypse. Some people like thinking about shooting zombies with their arsenals of weaponry, personally I like thinking about the details of crop rotation, whatever floats your boat. But notably I have never met anyone whose fantasies include “everyone I know and love would be dead.” Or “I would suffer crippling PTSD.” Or “no one would ever make a Star Wars movie again.” Or “I would probably not be a stone-cold badass, actually, I would probably get chewed on by a zombie while I was taking a shit and die thirty minutes into the apocalypse.”

This is why fantasies about the zombie apocalypse are cool, and the actual zombie apocalypse would be terrible.

But of course people don’t usually feel guilt about their fantasies about the zombie apocalypse or boss murder. No, this guilt is usually reserved for sexual fantasies.

All of the same arguments apply. There are lots of happily monogamously married women who sometimes fantasize about fucking a cute stranger they pass on the street. These fantasies notably do not include “my wife, whom I love more than life, feels crushed and betrayed that I cheated on her”, or “I broke my promise, which goes against everything I hold dear”, or “sex with random strangers is often really bad”, or “the random stranger might have an STI or get me pregnant or assault me”, or “I don’t actually want sex with strangers, it takes me some time to get comfortable with someone before I want to have sex with them”. It is totally consistent to have sexual fantasies about cheating and not actually want to cheat.

And similarly for other sorts of sexual fantasies. I sometimes see the argument that rape fantasies are actually ravishment fantasies, because in many such fantasies the victim actually wants sex. This argument has always seemed problematic to me (in real life, if someone says “no” but is aroused by the sex anyway, it’s still rape) and anyway I don’t know about you but I definitely don’t only have fantasies about attractive men having sex with women who say “no” but are secretly enthusiastic. My rape fantasies have actual rape in them.

But having a rape fantasy doesn’t mean you actually want to rape anyone or be raped, any more than making a zombie plan means you want all your friends to die. It is totally consistent to be sexually aroused by the thought of raping someone and to actually have moral objections to causing people years of emotional trauma and pain, such that actual rape is repulsive to you.

There are two special circumstances I want to talk about. First, sometimes having fantasies makes you want to do the thing more than you would otherwise. For instance, some recovering alcoholics find fantasizing about beer makes them want to drink, and some people who cheat on their partners find that sexual fantasies about people other than their spouses make them want to cheat. It makes sense that that would happen: fantasizing makes the good parts more salient than the bad parts. In that case, it can be helpful to explicitly remember the bad aspects. For instance, it’s fun to drink and makes you feel less anxious, and also last time you went on a bender you lost your job. Sex with the cute girl would feel really good, and it would break your wife’s heart.

Second, sometimes people don’t want to have close relationships with people who have certain fantasies. I think there’s a certain level of emotional intimacy required before that’s a reasonable request: your boss doesn’t get to request that you don’t have murder fantasies about him, no matter how much he’d like it. But it’s okay for someone to prefer that their romantic partner not have sexual fantasies about anyone else or that their friend not fantasize about killing them when they’re pissed off. If you have those fantasies anyway, you can try to stop (if that’s something that’s pretty easy for you to do, or if the relationship is worth it), or you can choose to end the relationship.

Book Post for March

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Dude, You’re Gonna Be A Dad: All I want is a book I can give to my husband that focuses on his experience of the pregnancy. Instead, I get this sexist pile of bullcrap.

A truly astonishing percentage of this book is devoted to Dealing With Women And Their Incomprehensible Woman Feelings. Of course you, a man, do not have any feelings you need to talk about! You are a manly man! You care about football! And sex! And drinking! The most striking thing about all of this is that it isn’t clear to me that this book expects men to actually get any say in their relationships whatsoever. If you don’t want to go shopping for the birth announcement or participate in a baby shower or go to the doctors’ appointments, why not just say that? Like, first of all, some men like baby showers? And, second of all, if you despise baby showers that much, why not tell your wife? It is just this horrifying vision of a world where people are constantly forced to have their most intimate relationship with someone they can’t talk to and don’t particularly like.

While I too agree that large breasts are very nice, an advice book shouldn’t go hubba hubba about how big one’s wife’s breasts are more than, say, twice. And if your wife is literally producing your child, then it seems to me that you should do your fair share of chores without having to be bribed with sex to do so. And in a pregnancy book, I think it is wildly inappropriate to talk about the process of birth and associated medical procedures as if they are so disgusting men cannot possibly be expected to deal with them. If you can’t handle knowing what an episiotomy is, maybe you shouldn’t have a partner who might get one.

The Book of New Family Traditions: How To Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday: I think that it’s problematic to refer to things as being neurotypical; after all, both neurodivergent and neurotypical people are very diverse, and it’s a mistake to assume that “unlike me” is the same thing as “NT”. Still, this book is aggressively neurotypical. A lot of the things the author considers to be Fun I would consider to be incredibly overstimulating and they would make me want to hide in a corner and cry.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of really cool ideas for holidays and rituals, if you can pick through the ones that wouldn’t work for you. A few I particularly liked: A mom bonded with her son, a college student who liked World of Warcraft, by playing with him, and eventually organized a birthday party for him in WoW with his guild; celebrating A A Milne’s birthday with small children who like Winnie the Pooh; reading a poem each day with your kids during April; a dad who brings his child’s stuffed animal with him on work trips and photographs the stuffed animal doing various fun things; giving a Miss Frizzle Award each month to the family member who has learned the most things through making the most mistakes.

The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: How The Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal With The Toughest Negotiators You Know– Your Kids: Less a parenting advice book, more an introduction to game theory that happens to use parenting as a hook. Still pretty interesting.

The traditional “I cut, you choose” is provably optimal if there are only two people involved. Traditional turn-taking is often suboptimal because going first is way better than going second: for instance, if you’re picking players on a team. “Balanced alternation” (Alice, Bob, Bob, Alice, Bob, Alice, Alice, Bob) is superior. If children are arguing over something, try an auction! The book recommends chore auctions, because children might have different amounts of money, but it seems to me that “you can’t buy control of the remote control if you’re saving up money for a new bike” is in fact an important economics lesson of its own. Not sure what the best way to deal with older children having larger allowances is, though. If you credibly follow through on threats, it’ll be less likely that you’ll have to follow through on threats. Majority rule works best for voting if there are only two options; if there are more options, Random Dictator (in which a single person is randomly selected to make the decision) is best over time, because families are generally small enough that everyone will be able to take a turn to be dictator.

No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way To Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind: The one phrase repeated throughout this book is “connect, then redirect.” Connecting with your child first calms them, improves your relationship, and might improve your child’s brain. To connect with your child, first get below their eye level, then touch them, give them a nod, or otherwise nonverbally communicate your empathy. Acknowledge their feelings verbally, then listen to what your child says, instead of lecturing or trying to convince her not to feel what she feels. Once you’ve listened, reflect back her emotions to her (“you seem really disappointed about not getting to go to the party”). Throughout the process, try to have an attitude of curiosity about why your child is behaving as they are. And don’t catastrophize about what your child’s misbehavior means for the rest of their life.

Wait until both you and your child are calm to redirect; your child is not in a place for learning, and you aren’t in a place for teaching, when either of you is overemotional. (I think they chose “redirect” because it rhymes, because honestly what they’re calling redirection doesn’t seem like redirection to me.) Redirection is inherently flexible: the important thing is not to stick to rules, but instead to ask yourself how best to teach the child what you want them to teach. It’s important to be consistent but not rigid: if the household policy is that homework is done before fun, but the child’s grandparents came over, maybe homework can wait for after dinner.

The skills you probably want to build through discipline are insight into oneself, empathy with others, and the ability to repair harms caused. Therefore, ask the child about his feelings to build insight and about other people’s feelings to build empathy. (It’s important to ask rather than lecturing. As you can no doubt remember from your own childhood, children zone out during lectures.) To build the ability to repair harms, ask the child what they think should happen afterward. You can also ask them for ideas about how to prevent problems in the future. Try neutrally describing situations: “you said you were prepared for the test, but you got a D, what happened?” Always accept your child’s emotions, even as you limit their behavior. Emphasize what you do want your children to do (“put on your shoes”) rather than what you don’t (“stop messing around!”). Whenever possible, say a yes with conditions rather than an outright no: “we can read a story tomorrow night”, not “no more stories.” Playfulness, silliness, and humor can defuse conflicts.

Loose Parts: Inspiring Play In Young Children: The premise of this book is that to encourage freeform play with kids, you should give them toys that can be used in a lot of different ways. This book then proceeds to have pictures of literally every such toy in existence. It is literally 90% picture. I don’t object to pictures per se, and some of the pictures are very prettily shot, but I am a very verbal person who gets bored easily by the umpteenth picture of pinecones.

A random sample of things photographed in the book, to give you an idea: bouncy balls; buckets; boxes; fabric; metal washers; rocks; pipe cleaners; seeds; pots and pans; bottlecaps; colored paper; necklaces.

The Wonder Weeks: The Wonder Weeks claims that whenever your infant is really fussy it is because they are learning a new skill. I have no idea if this is technically speaking “true”, but it certainly sounds hella useful for parents to believe. It is a huge pain in the ass when infants are fussy, but parents like their infants learning new skills, and you can reframe the situation by going “oh yes! She’ll probably be able to lift her head up/talk/walk/whatever soon!” Since infants are constantly learning things, it is a bit hard to prove this framing wrong.

Suggested activities for newborns: lots snuggling.

Suggested activities for week five: lots snuggling; have ‘conversations’ with your baby; show her things she finds interesting.

Suggested activities for week eight: let baby play with her hands and feet, possibly naked, possibly securely tying a ribbon to a hand or foot; chat with baby; bathe with baby; bring baby interesting objects; if the baby can lift her head up, gently pull her up so she’s sitting supported with you. Toys: anything that dangles overhead; anything that can be swiped at or touched; a mobile that moves or is musical; cuddly toys; a music box.

Suggested activities for week twelve: let your baby feel different fabrics; gently bounce the baby; sway baby side to side like a pendulum; slide the baby down your body; lift the baby up slowly above your head then lower her down, perhaps making airplane noises; pretend to nibble the baby; put the baby on your knee and bounce her. Toys: rattles; rocking chairs; dolls with realistic faces; bells; toys that make sounds; wobbly toys that bounce back when hit.

Suggested activities for week nineteen: narrate your life to the baby; look at brightly colored pictures together; sing songs; play peek-a-boo and one-little-piggy; show the baby a mirror; say “I’m going to [dramatic pause] pinch your [body part]” and then do so. Toys: crackly paper; mirror; photographs or pictures of other babies or objects or animals she recognizes by name; CD with children’s songs; toy vehicle with wheels that really turn; screw-top container with rice in it; household items such as a measuring cup or colander in the bath; activity center; ball with gripping notches and a bell inside; plastic or inflatable rattle.

Suggested activities for week 26: peek-a-boo and variations, hiding yourself or her; hide toys under a blanket or in the bathtub; look at picture books together; whisper to her; letting her drop things from her high chair; songs where you move the child as you sing; standing the baby on her head; letting her ‘fly’ around the room; supporting her as she sits or stands; swimming (only if supervised closely); going to a children’s farm together. Toys: a cupboard full of interesting things like empty toilet paper rolls, empty boxes, a pan, keys, and plastic plates; toy pianos; toy telephones; drums; squeaky toys; cuddly toys that make noise when turned upside down; toy cars with rotating wheels and openable doors; things to fill and empty out in the bath; CD with children’s songs; picture books; photo books; wooden blocks; balls; wooden spoons; boxes; empty egg cartons; wooden spoons; cups that nest or stack.

Suggested activities for week 37: taking baby outside; allowing him to press doorbells, flip light switches, etc.; let baby watch himself as you dress or undress him; name things; ask your baby to do things for you like handing you something; patty cake; let baby imitate what you’re doing; put baby in front of a mirror; chase; hide-and-seek (make sure the baby sees you disappear). Toys: things that open and close like doors and drawers; pans with lids; alarm clocks; magazines and newspapers to tear; plastic plates, cups, silverware; cushions and duvets to crawl on and over; boxes and buckets that are larger than he is; toy cars; posters with distinct pictures; picture books; baby pools; blocks, especially if large; sand, water, pebbles, and plastic tools; swings; dolls with realistic faces; things he can move (handles, knobs); things that move by themselves (shadows, branches); containers; balls of all sizes.

Suggested activities for week 46: pattycake; itsy bitsy spider; row row row your boat; let baby ‘help’ you do housework; let baby ‘groom’ himself; let baby feed himself with a spoon; let baby cooperate in dressing himself, and name the parts as you dress him; touch and name parts of your baby’s anatomy; point to and name things; put a toy under a cup and watch him look for it; wrap a plaything in crinkly paper and watch him unwrap it. Toys: toy cars; wooden trains with stations and bridges; drum (or pots and pans!) to beat on; dolls with toy bottles; books with animal pictures; balls of all sizes; giant plastic beads; mirrors; plastic figures of people or animals; primo blocks; bicycles, cars, or trucks he can sit on and move around himself; stuffed animals, especially if it makes music if you squeeze it; sandbox with bucket and spade.

Suggested activities for week 55: give the doll a bath; let the baby help unpack groceries, do dishes, or do other housework; hide an object that’s playing a sound and let the baby find it; put a toy under one cup, switch the locations of the cups, and let him find it. Toys: dolls with strollers and beds; farmhouse with farm animals and fences; tea set (unbreakable); wooden train with tracks; cars and garage; pots, pans, and wooden spoons; telephone; Primo blocks; bicycle, car, toy horse, or engine he can sit on; push-along wagon; rocking horse; stackable containers; rod with stackable rings; colored sponges; box with differently shaped blocks and holes; mop, hand broom, dustpan and brush; large sheets of paper and markers; books with animals or cars and tractors; musical instruments; CD with simple stories.

Suggested activities for week 64: various physical antics; playing outdoors; asking the child to point to objects or body parts; movement songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes or If You’re Happy and You Know It; silliness; cartoons like Sesame Street; peek-a-boo; hide-and-seek; ‘helping’ cook, vacuum, or do the dishes, or pretending ot do so. Toys: jungle gym and slide; balls; books; sandbox; tea set; puzzles; plastic bottles; cleaning utensils; toy vacuums; toys on a string; Sesame Street; cartoons.

Suggested activities for week 75: silliness; play wrestling and other physical play; drawing; trying to stand on his head or balance on one foot; drawing; blowing bubbles; jumping; balancing on a short wall; tickling; playing outside; playing with other children; ball games; ghost games; twirling around until dizzy; feeding the dog; tag; hide-and-seek; reading stories. Toys: cars and garage; clay; children’s TV; children’s books; trinkets that belong together; toy airport; drawing on paper; sand and water; push car; plastic chair; ball; bicycle; stuffed animals, dolls, teddy bears; stickers; sandbox; digging in the yard; Sesame Street; music; slide; colored pencils; blowing bubbles; trains; swings; rocking horse; puzzles.

Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy: This cites a lot of psychological experiments that have that sort of “gee whiz” quality that makes me think they’ll fail to replicate. Many of the cited studies are on rats, and things that apply to rat babies have a remarkable tendency to not generalize to human babies. She also cites Satoshi Kanazawa, He Who Gives All Other Evolutionary Psychologists A Bad Name. So if you’re looking for a science-based pregnancy I’d recommend Debunking the Bump or Expecting Better and skipping this one.

Anyway, the actionable advice from this book is as follows:

  • Don’t eat food that makes you feel nauseous in early pregnancy.
  • The expectant father may get mood swings, nausea, fatigue, food cravings or aversions, or bloat; if so, rejoice, as this is a sign of attachment and emotional responsiveness to the baby. (Also, now he gets to suffer as much as you do.)
  • Eat a generally healthy diet: leafy greens, eggs, fruit, fish, nuts, beans, whole grains, soy, and a little fat and dairy, but not to excess.
  • In particular: Eat fish.
  • Avoid consuming an excessive amount of vitamins.
  • Gain between twenty-five and thirty-five pounds.
  • Have sex.
  • Tell the father the baby looks like him, even if it doesn’t.
  • Read books to and play music to the baby in utero; they will find those books and music comforting when they leave.
  • Moderate stress and exercise are good for the fetus, but high levels of stress and exercise are bad.
  • Eat a chocolate bar each day.
  • Squat during childbirth if you can.
  • Stimulate your breasts to induce labor.
  • Spend the first hour after birth with the baby pressed against your chest.
  • Don’t bathe right after childbirth.
  • Get ample support during childbirth.
  • Take pictures of your baby’s smiling face and then look at it as often as possible.
  • Give your baby ample love and nurturing, even to the point of spoiling her.
  • Breast-feed.
  • While breast-feeding, try to have moderate stress in your life.

No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years Into Cherished Moments With Your Kids: No Regrets Parenting consists mostly of a series of ideas about how to spend time with your children if you are a busy person, as many parents are. For instance, you can host sleepovers; if you’re working weekends, you can take your kids to the office with you and let them play at the office. To bond with a teenager, you can teach them to drive and then help them apply to college. You can have family traditions, like a taco night and family movie night. You can have family dinners together every night. Most of the suggestions are not particularly groundbreaking, but it’s nice to have them all in one place.

Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach To Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavioral Problems, and Encourage Confidence: Based on the author’s experience as a father and play therapist, this is an extensive guide to playing with children. I find it extraordinarily reassuring that there are how-to books for these things.

Playful Parenting argues that children’s misbehavior is often caused by disconnection, and creating a sense of connection can cause them to behave better. The best way to do this is through the language of children– play. Play also allows children to work through their feelings and conflicts in their lives. We may stigmatize certain kinds of play– disapproving of roughhousing, violent play, or play we deem sexist. But these allow kids to feel a sense of connection and work through their feelings too: for instance, wrestling can allow kids to explore themes of aggression, anger, isolation, or strength. So try to respect your children’s play and engage in it wholeheartedly. For instance, the author played Barbies reluctantly with his daughter, thinking that they were boring and stupid and sexist, before he realized that this was basically saying to his daughter “your interests are boring and stupid and sexist.” He then played with more enthusiasm. The author suggests that wrestling and other physical play are excellent ways to engage with kids, as is pretending to be stupid (for instance, putting a sock on your head, then on your hand, then on your shoulder, before you put it on your foot). Play can stop misbehavior in its tracks by turning the misbehavior into a game.

[content warning: child sexual abuse]

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex: A must-read for any sex-positive American. Levine’s thesis is that, as a culture, Americans are hysterical about the sexuality of minors, and this causes a great deal of harm. Although her book is nearly fifteen years old, the trends she discusses have not changed as far as I can tell.

For instance, consider child on child sexual abuse. Although child on child sexual abuse is a real thing (and one of my few critiques of Levine’s book is that I think she fails to engage with the harm it can cause), social workers and scholars have concluded without evidence that sexual play and ordinary roughhousing are really sexual abuse. Sexual play might not be “just curiosity”– many children experience sexual pleasure, which they may wish to consensually explore with other children. We simply do not have enough information to know what is normal and what is abnormal sexual play, as well as whether abnormal but consensual sexual play causes any harm. In the absence of this evidence, children are being branded as sexual offenders and placed in treatment that is far more appropriate to actual abusers (for instance, it characterizes the child’s insistence that they have not done anything wrong as “denial”).

Even if it’s not branded as child-on-child sexual abuse, Levine points out that our attitude towards children’s sexuality is fucked up in a lot of different ways. For instance, she describes a parenting advice columnist who, when asked what to do when the parent catches two five-year-old boys looking at and touching each other’s penises, says to tell them there’s nothing wrong with their bodies but that their bodies are private so they shouldn’t show them to each other. Levine asks, “surely, if we want to teach our children about privacy, the correct thing to do would be to say ‘excuse me’ and close the door?” There is simply no concept that children might have privacy from parents or the ability to make decisions about their own bodies.

The situation is worse for teenagers, who pretty much always want sex more than children do. Levine’s criticisms of abstinence-only education are familiar, but she goes farther than that. Levine questions the usefulness of statutory rape law, pointing out that the line is drawn differently in different places, and yet most Americans don’t even know whether their state is a sex-under-eighteen-is-illegal state or a sex-under-sixteen-is-illegal state. She points out that many adults who had sex with adults as teenagers consider it a positive experience, and essentially no one considers actual rape to be a positive experience. And getting the courts involved can worsen an already bad situation.

Levine argues that teenagers should generally be expected to engage in outercourse, rather than intercourse. However, even comprehensive sex education (Levine calls it “abstinence-plus”) provides little to no education about what outercourse might mean, almost never mentioning such activities as phone sex, sharing porn, frottage, or use of sex toys. Many people condemn cybersex, even though it’s objectively speaking the safest form of sex a teenager might engage in: there’s no STI or pregnancy risk, and real life doesn’t come with a block function. But cybersex combines the terrifying Teen Sexuality with the terrifying Internet, so it’s doomed.

Keep Your Identity Large

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In his famous essay Keep Your Identity Small, Paul Graham argues that the reason arguments about religion, politics, and programming languages get so heated is that they’re parts of a person’s identity. It isn’t just about the merits of this or that policy or this or that programming language, it’s about who you are as a person. Therefore, he suggests, to be less stupid, avoid identifying as anything: be “a person who uses Lisp sometimes” rather than “a Lisp programmer.”

I disagree.

The problem is that, as Sarah Constantin writes:

Dasein [identity] is what you do when you assert what it means to be human, what it means to be you, what it means to be a member of your community.  Dasein is self-definition.  And, in particular, self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type?

These are really basic psychological needs for a lot of people. As Sarah writes later, identity is about self-expression, self-definition, self-assertion. Of course, not everyone shares these needs: not everyone needs to know who they are and where they fit into the social fabric. There are a lot of different kinds of minds. But having a self-model, a sense of yourself, is a legitimate need for many people.

Of course, if you have that need, and you try to eliminate your sense of identity, your brain isn’t just going to let you go about not having a basic psychological need filled. Probably you’re going to have an identity anyway, you’re just not going to be consciously aware that you have it. And that means you can’t take any steps to compensate for the ways your identity might be biasing you. You can’t take a step back and say “hey, I know I get emotional about programming languages because I identify as a Lisp programmer, so I should take a step back and deliberately notice the good parts of this other heathen programming language.” Instead, you just say “Lisp is the best language for all purposes! You should believe me because I don’t have an identity as a Lisp programmer so I’m objective!”

It is always dangerous to have a self-image as being objective, because all too often one acquires the self-image before one acquires the objectivity.

Of course, the criticisms Graham says still apply: if people’s identities are getting wrapped up in an argument, it’s really hard to have the argument in a remotely civil and enlightening way. So how do we minimize the harm of having an identity while still getting the benefits?

Identify as things that aren’t based on empirical claims. If you identify as a libertarian, then you’re signing on to a bunch of empirical claims, like “the minimum wage is bad for poor people” and “environmental regulations cause more harm than good” and “police officers abuse people’s civil liberties.” If it turns out that actually police officers are totally nice to black people everywhere, this might be a threat to your identity as a libertarian, and then you’re going to have flamewars about the subject.

Compare this to an identity as a baker. I am really having a hard time thinking of empirical claims related to being a baker. “Bread is yummy”? “It is a good use of one’s time to knead things”? “Being paleo is maybe a bad idea and maybe a reason for creativity in the use of gluten-free flours”? But “baker” serves all the same purposes of self-definition (you are a person who can make really delicious cakes) and understanding oneself within a social context (you are a person who feeds people such as Ozy delicious cake). A baker self-identity is free epistemically.

Identify as things you want to preserve. Many effective altruists are concerned about values drift. They start out valuing altruism, become an investment banker so they can donate more money, and wind up valuing $300 sushi dinners and designer ties. Fortunately, identity tends to keep things fixed. That’s awful for facts– you want to be convinced by new evidence– but great for values– you want to keep your own values and not other people’s. Therefore, it can be useful to identify as an altruist, or an artist, or a family man, or an ambitious person, or a hedonist, or some other value you wish to preserve.

There’s a failure mode here. It’s very easy to have an identity as a good person, and then when people threaten your identity as a good person you lash out at them in the same way that Lisp programmers lash out when people suggest Lisp isn’t the best programming language. This can lead to results even more disastrous than bad arguments about politics. So if you’re going to identify as a good person, it’s really really important that your definition of “good person” isn’t “a person who always does the right thing” but “a person who notices their mistakes and tries to fix them.” A similar concern applies to artists, family men, and so on: it’s important to make sure that your definition of artist is not “a person who makes great art” but “a person who values their art and puts a lot of effort into it.”

Keep your identity large. Don’t just identify as a Lisp programmer. Identify as a poet, a mother, a Communist, a Jew, a weightlifter, an altruist, and a Lisp programmer.

If the only identity you have is Lisp programmer, then it’s terrifying to think about not being a Lisp programmer. How will you know who you are? How can you relate to other people? On the other hand, if you have a lot of identities, you have something to fall back on. Even if you have to switch programming languages, your children still exist, you can still benchpress twice your body weight, you still light Shabbat candles, and you still spend an absurd amount of time explaining that your preferred economic system wouldn’t have any gulags at all not even a little bit and capitalism has killed more people than socialism anyway. Your sense of self in a social context remains secure. You can admit the flaws in Lisp or that prices are an elegant means of solving coordination problems, without threatening who you are as a person– because who you are as a person isn’t grounded in just one thing.