Link Post for June

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I will be at EA Global San Francisco this month. You can catch me as one of three panelists at the Strategic Movement-Building for Wild-Animal Suffering panel, where we’ll be talking about appealing to mainstream experts, framing wild-animal suffering in a way that counters common objections, and avoiding making the entire EA movement look like a bunch of weirdos.

Also, this month I am going to be moving out of a house on Ward Street, the rationalist hub in Berkeley; contact me at ozyfrantz@gmail.com if you’re interested.

Effective Altruism

Reducing Wild Animal Suffering literature library— a fascinating collection of papers about empirical, theoretical, and moral aspects of RWAS.

Argument against prediction markets.

Triple-counting impact in EA.

Postmortem of a failed happiness app. I would like to congratulate Michael Plant on his honest and forthright admission of failure; we need more of this in EA.

Detailed criticism of the chapter on existential risk in Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. “So far as I can tell, almost every paragraph of the chapter contains at least one misleading claim, problematic quote, false assertion, or selective presentation of the evidence.” Beware the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect!

Is biodiversity as important as people claim?

Discourse Norms

A conflict about a two-person protest at the University of Nebraska goes national. A very good, in-depth case study of a single campus free speech case, going beyond the headlines.

ACE intervention report on the effects of protests, which may also be of interest to activists who aren’t involved in animal activism. Many of the points may generalize.

Linking this less for the object-level points and more for the interesting example of how different conversations can look for different people.

I’m not sure this post about the King of Cambodia is worth reading, but lèse-majesté laws are evil and I feel a duty to signal-boost posts violating it as much as possible.

Gender

I think this essay‘s claims about women in general are incorrect– people are more diverse than that– but it’s a very vivid depiction of one particular way internalized sexism affected a particular person.

Anti-heterosexual hate crimes basically don’t exist, but police inaccurately report that they do.

Just Plain Neat

DNA blunder creates serial killer.

What would you do if a bank glitch gave you one and a half million dollars?

The new cartoonist for eighty-year-old newspaper comic Nancy is actually… good?

Dirtbag Sappho.

Bad stock photos.

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How Pet Owners Can Help Wild Animals and the Environment

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Many people talk about wild-animal suffering as if it is completely intractable, or as if it is inherently opposed to environmental conservation, or as if it’s impossible to know what effects our actions could possibly have on wild animals. But, in fact, there is one simple action any cat or dog owner can do to help wildlife and the environment at the same time: keep their animals inside. (My statistics here come from this review. See also Utility Farm’s excellent blog post on a similar topic.)

Both cats and dogs are predators, and their largest effect on wildlife is through predation. Most studies suggest cats primarily hunt mammals and birds, taxa which are generally considered to be moral patients. Cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds annually in the United States and 100 and 300 million in Canada. In some areas, cats are the largest source of anthropogenic mortality for birds. Cats also kill between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals annually in the United States; they kill between 2.8 and 4.9 million native animals annually in Australia and a million per month in Finland. While the effects of dogs are less studied, dogs also hunt wildlife and no doubt kill millions or billions of animals a year.

Some people might wonder if this is part of the natural cycle of life: after all, predators are part of nature, and eliminating them may cause harm to ecosystems. Perhaps cats and dogs are preventing worse deaths through starvation. Others might wonder whether some other predator would eat the prey if the cats and dogs did not.

However, the evidence suggests that this is not the case. Cats have contributed to 14% of modern mammal, reptile, and bird extinctions. While dogs are understudied, they likely also contribute to extinctions. Since cats and dogs contribute to extinctions, one would expect the mortality rate to decrease significantly in the absence of cat and dog predation; the wildlife cats and dogs kill would have lived much longer otherwise. In addition, extinctions can make ecosystems less stable and result in an incalculable loss of ecosystem services.

Thinking just about deaths from predation underestimates the scope of the problem. It’s widely known that cats tend to play with prey, and while playing is fun for the cat, it’s horrifying for the prey. (Imagine how you would feel if a giant repeatedly injured you, then almost let you escape, then injured you again.) 43 to 68% of cat predation attempts are unsuccessful, and cat behavioral observations show a kill rate of 13%. While few victims of cats are brought into rehabilitation centers, cat-caused injuries account for 30% of the admissions into one California rehabilitation center and 28.7% of admissions into four Italian bat rehabilitation centers. Dogs also harass their prey as often as they kill it. The effects of “playing” on prey are rarely quantified, but typically include stress and behavioral changes that are indicative of poor welfare.

Even if the cat or dog never catches its prey, the cat or dog can have tremendous negative effects. Alarm calling by birds in the presence of cats can attract other predators such as corvids. The signs of dog and cat presence, such as barking or urine, increase vigilance, refuge-seeking behavior, anxiety, and wariness across multiple taxa.  Therefore, even the mere presence of dogs and cats can be expected to cause fear and distress to prey animals.

Dogs and cats can also spread diseases. 90% of dog and cat pathogens are multi-host. Dogs are reservoirs for numerous pathogens, including canine distemper virus, rabies virus, canine parvovirus, and canine adenoviruses. Free-ranging owned cats excrete an astonishing 10.7 kg of feces outside each year, which transmits Toxoplasma gondii to many other species. Cats also transmit rabies and feline parvovirus. Of course, when our cats and dogs get sick, we typically treat them with antibiotics. But that contributes to antibiotic resistance and can spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria to small wild mammals.

Unsterilized cats and dogs can also interbreed with their wild cousins, producing less fit hybrids. In small populations, genetic drift and infrequent mating opportunities with members of the same species may preserve these deleterious genes. Since hybridization primarily harms relatively small populations, it is less concerning from a wild-animal welfare perspective than other harms caused by dogs and cats. However, from an ecological perspective, hybridization can help make species from dingos to wolves extinct.

How can you prevent your cat or dog from harming wildlife? If you have a cat, keep your cat strictly indoors. If you have a dog, keep control of the dog when the dog’s on a leash, allow the dog to be off-leash only in designated areas, promptly remove feces, and always be mindful of wildlife. If you must allow your cat or dog to go outside unsupervised, keep the animal well-fed, clip the animal’s nails, and keep them inside at night. If you have an outdoor cat, use a bell, sonar device, or product such as CatBibs or Birdsbesafe to protect wildlife from your cat. Regardless of your pet’s species, always vaccinate your pet to prevent the spread of diseases and sterilize the pet to prevent the existence of more feral animals.

Models: A Summary

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Models is the single best book I’ve read about finding a romantic-sexual partner. Although intended for straight men, the vast majority of the advice is useful for people of all genders and sexual orientations. Many people I know have difficulty finding romantic-sexual partners, and it often causes them a lot of pain.

If this summary intrigues you, I urge you to buy the book. I cannot summarize an entire book in three thousand words; there’s a lot of advice and examples I can’t include, and then you will get Mark Manson’s version which isn’t filtered through my opinions. If you can’t afford the book, I hope you will find this summary helpful anyway.

Alpha Males Are Everywhere

For the purposes of this subsection, I will define “alpha male” as a straight man who, if he so chooses, could go out on an ordinary Friday night and, about half the time, find a stranger they find attractive to have a one-night stand with. (Sorry for the terminology, feminist readers, but I’m trying to talk to the anti-feminists here; if this is teeth-grindingly awful, skip ahead to ‘summary’.) I don’t mean that they necessarily go out and have a one-night stand every night: some people don’t want to. There are some men who are saving themselves for marriage but, if they decided to stop having this goal, could easily have a one-night stand this weekend. Alpha maledom, as I’m defining it, is a fairly high level of attractiveness for a man. Nevertheless, it’s not wildly unachievable: it’s not Keith-Richards-level attractiveness, it’s hottest-guy-in-the-room attractiveness. In my adventures as a promiscuous person, I have had the opportunity to observe many men in this category.

Here’s the thing.

I know broke alpha males. I know alpha males who are financially supported by their girlfriends. I know fat alpha males. I know bald alpha males. I know short alpha males. I know ugly alpha males. I know alpha males with small dicks. I know alpha males who are programmers. I know alpha males who love D&D, Star Trek, and World of Warcraft. I know feminine alpha males. I know sexually submissive alpha males. I know alpha males who rock a dress. I know alpha males who cry at every single Pixar movie, all of which they have seen, because Pixar movies are their favorite. Extroversion definitely helps, but I know some introverted alpha males and even some socially anxious ones.

Alpha males are an incredibly diverse bunch of people. Many, perhaps most, of them are people you would never expect to be as attractive as they are.

It’s harder to come up with as clear a definition of attractiveness for straight women and queer people. Straight men as a group tend to want casual sex more than straight women as a group (even from a sex-differences-don’t-exist feminist perspective this makes sense– women are more likely than men to be slut-shamed and less likely than men to have orgasms during casual sex). So “ability to get casual sex” is a useful metric for straight men and less useful for everyone else.

But I am pretty damn sure the same thing is true for straight women and queer people. The ones who have the highest level of sexual success do not necessarily look like what you’re imagining when you think “really hot straight woman” or “really hot gay man” or “really hot lesbian”.

Now, I’m not saying anyone can be an alpha. Many people are going to have a hard time being alphas: if nothing else, if you can’t talk to attractive people, you are never going to be able to date them. But what I am saying is that that narrative you tell yourself where you’re short and therefore you’ll never find love, or you’re a nerd and therefore you’ll never find love, or whatever– maybe you should be open to the possibility that that’s not true. Because a surprising amount of the time, other people with that trait have more dates than they know what to do with.

Summary

The two rules:

  • Be vulnerable.
  • Don’t be needy.

The three fundamentals:

  • Having an attractive lifestyle.
  • Knowing how to flirt.
  • ACTUALLY ASKING PEOPLE OUT.

If you can’t get a date, you have a problem with at least one of the three fundamentals. Possibly two. A few people are in bad enough straights that they have trouble with all three. And surprisingly often, your problem with the three fundamentals is rooted in a problem with one of the two rules.

This can be overwhelming: there’s a lot of specific advice. I’d suggest working on your vulnerability and non-neediness first, while picking one or two pieces of advice from your weakest fundamental. For example, if you have trouble flirting, you might concentrate on touching people you’re flirting with on the arm when you tell them a joke. That will be incredibly awkward the first time you do it, because you’re not used to it. Keep trying. It will get easier.

Also, you don’t have to be perfect! You don’t have to be a god of non-neediness and vulnerability to get a date: the vast majority of people who date or get married are needy sometimes and are ashamed of some things. You can become very sexually successful even if your clothes don’t fit, or you don’t have a sense of humor, or your opinions are bland and boring. If you’re unsatisfied, then work on your fundamentals; if you’re satisfied with your romantic life, enjoy your poorly fitting clothes and bland opinions to your heart’s content.

The Two Rules

Neediness is when you care about other people’s perceptions of you more than you care about your perception of you. Your actions are primarily motivated by gaining approval from others. Non-neediness is when you care about your perception of you more than other people’s perception of you. Your actions are primarily motivated by your own desires and goals.

Specifically, you must care less about a romantic partner’s approval of you than you do about your own approval of you. You can care about whether a romantic partner approves of you– most people do! — but you have to care more about your own opinion of yourself. If your romantic partner is like “I will only love you if you kick that puppy,” you have to be the sort of person who can say “uh, fuck off.”

Non-neediness doesn’t mean that you’re a dick! You can compliment people, or give them thoughtful gifts, or remember their birthdays, or let them crash on your couch for six months, and be non-needy. If you’re letting someone crash on your couch for six months because they’re cool and you like spending time with them, non-needy. If you are seething with resentment but don’t dare to say anything because what if that makes them unhappy with you, needy.

You can be non-needy and be an effective altruist or a white anti-racist or a male feminist, as long as you’re that because of your own values and desires. “Maybe if I give lots of money to charity people will like me and I won’t be evil”: needy. “I think it’s wrong that I have so much and other people have so little”: non-needy. “I am not going to buy you a diamond necklace for Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you feel you deserve it, because I’m donating the money to the Humane League”: epic-level non-needy.

Which brings us to the idea of polarization. At its core, polarization means this: if a person turns you down, they’re doing you a favor.

Most of the time, we think about romantic and sexual success as decreasing the number of rejections you get. In reality, romantic and sexual success means trying to get rejected as quickly as possible.

Nearly always, the reason a person has for not wanting to date you is also a reason you don’t want to date them. Someone rejected you for not wanting kids? Imagine five years from now when they’ve worn you down and you have to wake up six times a night to feed a child you never wanted. Someone rejected you for being bald? Imagine having sex with them while they try to hide that they aren’t attracted to you and it doesn’t work and you feel awful about yourself. Someone rejected you for being boring? Imagine all the bitter fights you’ve prevented about how you NEVER take them out anymore and it’s like you don’t EVEN CARE ABOUT THEM AT ALL.

It’s true that sometimes people reject you for stupid reasons. I have seen a list floating around the Internet where the author offers the opinion that you should always reject someone who sleeps on a mattress on the floor. That’s a pretty dumb reason to turn someone down, but think about it this way: now you don’t have to date someone who would turn you down based on whether you own a bedframe. What a fucking asshole. Good thing they rejected you.

Many people try to get dates by being as boring and neutral as possible, hiding anything weird about themselves, in the hopes it prevents rejection. This is literally the opposite of what you should do. Wave your freak flag high! Be open about your bald, kid-hating, boring ways, and then you will only date people who loathe kids, enjoy counting their silverware, and have a thing for Picard.

And that brings us to vulnerability. Vulnerability is the willingness to stick your neck out, even if people might think you’re stupid or weird or make fun of you about it. It’s making jokes that might not be funny, sharing fears that might make people think you’re a coward, trying things that you might suck at, telling someone you like them when you might be rejected. Vulnerability is saying: “this is who I am and I am not going to be anyone else.”

There is a deep connection between vulnerability and non-neediness. If you care about what other people think about you more than what you think about you, then there are lots of aspects of yourself you’re ashamed of or embarrassed about. If you care most of all about your own self-respect, then you’re willing to be more open.

The thing about the attractive guy who cries at Pixar movies is that, when the subject of Pixar comes up, he says “I think Pixar movies are some of the greatest movies of the twenty-first century. People don’t give them as much credit as they should because they’re children’s movies. I challenge any person with a soul not to cry at the first twenty minutes of Up.” If you love Pixar with all your heart and soul, and when the subject comes up you go “uh um they’re children’s movies I mean um I have occasionally watched one I guess but it’s not like I REALLY like them or anything,” that is not attractive.

Be willing to admit to your embarrassing moments, your flaws, your mental health issues, your weaknesses, your mistakes, and your habit of drinking milk out of the carton. This is attractive.

Fundamental One: Lifestyle

The basic rule of lifestyle is that like attracts like. You attract what you are.

If you’re goth, you attract goths. If you’re a nerd, you attract nerds. If you’re Christian, you attract Christians. If you’re an educated professional who likes fine wine and travel, you attract educated professionals who like fine wine and travel.

Here are some problems people have with lifestyle:

Looking in the wrong place for partners. If you’re quiet and love thoughtful conversation and fantasy novels, you’re not going to be very successful at a bar. However, you might do very well at a book club. A quick heuristic is to think about where you would look for friends (and then filter that for places that also have a lot of people of the appropriate gender and sexual orientation– straight men, book clubs are better than Magic tournaments; straight women, the other way around).

Pretending to be something you’re not. If you’re quiet and love thoughtful conversation and fantasy novels,  but are pretending to be loud and enjoy sportsball and crushing beer cans on your head, you are only going to attract loud people who like sportsball and crushing beer cans on their head. This is not the recipe for a long and happy relationship.

Attracting the wrong people. If one person you date is a narcissistic manipulative asshole, or hates sex (if you’re allosexual), or runs up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt you have to bail them out from, shit happens. If every person you date is a narcissistic manipulative asshole, or hates sex (if you’re allosexual), or runs up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt you have to bail them out from, then you are doing something that attracts those people. Consider:

  • Are you, yourself, the kind of person you keep attracting (e.g. a narcissistic manipulative asshole)?
  • Are you the complement of the person you keep attracting (e.g. someone who can’t set boundaries)?
  • Do you believe everyone, or all people of your preferred gender, are like the kind of person you keep attracting (e.g. you think all men are narcissistic manipulative assholes)?

Now, most of this advice is pretty vague. Here is some more specific advice. However, every piece of advice must be tested against the “like attracts like” rule and the non-neediness rule. If a piece of advice makes you less like your best self, or it attracts people that you don’t want to date or have sex with, ignore it.

Some traits are physically attractive, like a symmetrical face. Some traits are psychologically attractive, like charm and talent. In general, men tend to care more about physical attractiveness and women tend to care more about psychological attractiveness. (This is a generalization, there are lots of exceptions, and regardless it’s like 60% one and 40% the other for most people anyway.) If you are a straight man, you probably are falling victim to the typical mind fallacy and care too much about being physically attractive and not enough about being psychologically attractive. If you are a straight woman, it is possible that that’s the problem, but it’s also possible that the media has taught you that men care 95% about physical attractiveness and you should work on being charming instead.

Here is some general physical-attractiveness advice:

  • Pay attention to basic hygiene, including showering, deodorant, brushing and flossing your teeth, haircuts, and clean clothes without holes.
  • Wear clothes that fit you. Consult howclothesshouldfit.com. Dresses (which are not covered on the site) should skim the body without squeezing it; you should be able to see the shape of your body and it should not ride up when you walk.
  • Wear colors that match. I am actually generally confused about this one myself and rely on blunt friends and/or take the attractiveness hit.
  • Wear clothes that match your personality and signal the things you want to signal. You can look at what celebrities you want to be like wear (Mark Zuckerberg counts).
  • Exercise. EXERCISE. EXERCISE! EXERCISE!!!!!!
  • While the most important kind of exercise is the kind you actually do, lifting weights improves the attractiveness of everyone, male and female. (No, women, you will not get “too bulky” unless you repeatedly trip and inject yourself with steroids.)
  • Limit soda, candy, fast food, and desserts; eat fruits and vegetables.

Here is advice for people who want to present in a masculine way. This is mostly straight men and queer people, but straight women who feel drawn to masculinity should consider it too. It’s great polarization and you will never have to shave your armpits again. People who wish to be feminine, sorry, both I and Mark Manson are totally unqualified to provide you advice.

  • Move your shoulders back until the seam on your shirt that extends from neck to sleeve is straight.
  • Raise your chin to a 90 degree angle; make the back of your neck as straight as possible.
  • Your feet should be shoulder-length apart and either straight ahead or at a slight outward angle.
  • Swing your shoulders and your arms a little as you walk. (Not too exaggerated; just a little swagger.)
  • Speak from your chest voice. If your voice sounds different when you hold your nose closed, you’re speaking from head voice.
  • Speak slowly yet loudly (without screaming).

Most psychological attractiveness will be covered under “Flirting.” However, relevant for lifestyle is whether you are a super-boring person. If you spend all your time working and watching the same sports and sitcoms everyone else does, you are probably boring. If you go skydiving, write poetry, or climb mountains, if you are Internet famous, or if you have ever eaten a spider, you are probably interesting. The easy way to become interesting is to try more things with an open mind. If it exists, it exists because someone finds some value in it; try to find the value and then decide whether you like it.

Fundamental Two: Flirting

Flirting is all about subtext. Two people can say the exact same thing and one is successful flirting and one is failed flirting, because the subtext is different. If you compliment someone because you’re needy and want to validate yourself with their affection, that is very different from complimenting them because you appreciate them. Subtext is also the difference between teasing and insults, sharing and bragging, and so on.

So what subtext do you want to establish while flirting? First, of course, you need to be non-needy and vulnerable. Second, you want to create sexual tension, which means creating uncertainty (that’s the tension bit) about whether you’ll have a sexual or romantic relationship (that’s the sexual bit). A really obvious example of this is playing hard-to-get.

But you can also create sexual tension by stating your intentions boldly, such as by complimenting someone on their appearance. The uncertainty comes from what will happen next and what you’ll say or do.

(NOTE: if you are flirting with a shy nerd, they’ll come up with the uncertainty all by themselves, you don’t have to make any.)

How to Flirt:

  • Do not startle or scare someone when approaching them, such as by approaching them from behind, screaming, grabbing them, or saying something offensive.
  • The best three pickup lines are “hi, I’m X”, “hey, this is kind of random, but I wanted to meet you,” and “hi, I thought you were cute and wanted to meet you.”
  • Smile.
  • Whenever possible, be brief. Don’t use ten words when you can use four.
  • Instead of asking people questions about themselves, make mild predictions. For example, instead of saying “where are you from?”, say “you look like a California girl.”
  • If the conversation stalls, just say whatever you happen to be thinking, no matter how random it is.
  • Teach yourself to notice jumping-off points in other people’s statements. For example, if someone says “I go to Harvard now, but I want to move out west because the weather is too cold,” you can talk about Harvard, the west, or the weather.
  • Learn to tell stories with a setup, a conflict, and a resolution.
  • Open up about yourself. Talk about your passions, your ambitions, the best and worst things that have ever happened to you, your childhood. That will get them to open up about themself, which leads to an emotional connection.
  • Make jokes. Here are some kinds of jokes:
    • Misdirection– saying something that makes your listener think you’re going to make one point, but actually making a different one (“you know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither.”)
    • Exaggeration– blowing things out of proportion in an interesting way (“I’ve seen more appetizing things in the bottom of an airport urinal”).
    • Teasing– humorous, derogatory comments with a good intention (to a person sitting by themself looking bored: “who put you in time-out?”)
    • Puns– playing on words (“surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley”)
    • Roleplaying– pretending to be something you’re not (if a person you’re flirting with says something you dislike: “that’s it, we’re getting divorced. You can keep the kids, I’m moving to Italy.”)
  • Only ask someone for their phone number if they seem genuinely interested in you and if you want to hang out with them again. Don’t make up a line or a reason, just ask for it.

How To Date:

  • If a person likes you, they will make it easy for you to date them. If Chris Hemsworth or Scarlett Johanssen asked them out, do you think they could rebook those weekend plans? Then if they’re not doing it for you, they aren’t that interested.
  • Have dates at night, but early enough that you can spend three or four hours together if it’s going well. (Lunchtime and afternoon dates often come off as platonic.)
  • NO MOVIE DATES. (Exceptions: Rocky Horror Picture Show, midnight releases you’re both looking forward to.)
  • Dinner dates are okay but you can usually do better.
  • Good dates: comedy club, dance class, walk in a park or plaza, concerts, bars, nightclubs, museums, looking at books together…
  • Netflix-and-chill might come off as boring, but is also cheap and can result in sex really fast. Your call.
  • Whenever possible, try to include multiple activities on a date. For example, you might meet for coffee, get ice cream, go swinging at the empty playground, and then go to a bookstore.
  • If you planned the date, then lead the date. Say confidently what you’ll do next (“there’s this great exhibit at the Exploratorium”).
  • Have deeper and more personal conversations, without becoming a job interview.
  • TOUCH. YOUR. PARTNER.
    • I mean it. If someone says “stop”, obviously, you stop, and in sex-positive contexts you should feel free to ask first if you’re uncertain, but YOU MUST TOUCH PEOPLE YOU ARE ON DATES WITH.
    • Start by gently touching them on the arm or shoulder for emphasis (for example, at the punchline of a joke). Wait for them to touch you back.
    • If they do, you can move to more intimate touch, like putting your hand on their back or around their shoulders. Notice if they pull away; if they do, it’s probably not welcome.
    • In sex-positive contexts, if you think the person you’re with wants to kiss you, a simple “can I kiss you?” is appropriate; if you’re good at reading body language, you can just go for it.

Signals of interest

  • Pre-approach: smiling; non-accidental eye contact; proximity; the person initiating a conversation with you.
  • In conversation: smiling and laughing a lot; playing with their hair (usually women, femininely presenting people, and shy people); making lots of eye contact; makes excuses to spend more time with you; touches you; ditches their friends for you; comes up with some pretext to be alone with you.

Fundamental Three: ACTUALLY ASKING PEOPLE OUT

Lots of people are anxious about talking to attractive people, asking people out, the first kiss, and sex. They come up with various rationalizations:

  • “Oh, she’s stupid.”
  • “Men are shallow and only care about looks.”
  • “I don’t really care about getting a girlfriend.”
  • “I’ll ask him out tomorrow.”
  • “I don’t know if I’m really bisexual, so I shouldn’t ask that cute guy out.”
  • “If I ask her out I might sexually harass her.”
  • “I need to learn more about how to flirt first.”

The way you learn to overcome your anxiety is a process of gradual exposure. For example, let’s say you’re scared to talk to women. You might start by going up to three women once a day and asking what the time is. When that isn’t scary, try asking them what the time is and how their day is going. Continue until you can walk up to a strange woman and say that she’s cute and you wanted to meet her. It may help to tell a friend that this is your goal.

Lots of men I know are scared of asking women out because they’re afraid of sexually harassing them, so it’s time for a pep talk.

First, there is no such thing as a romantically or sexually successful person who has never ever creeped anyone out. Give yourself permission to be creepy. I am not saying that you should go around trying to creep people out; of course, if you know something is going to scare someone, you shouldn’t do it; it is best that one avoid becoming Harvey Weinstein. But miscommunications, awkwardness, and misunderstandings happen. Sometimes people make mistakes. You are not going to become Harvey Weinstein by accident. Most people have interacted with someone who has creeped them out at some point, and it does not exactly cause lifelong damage. And while there can be some negative consequences, particularly of creeping people out at work, if you ask out a random stranger at a bookstore or something and they’re creeped out, you know what will happen? Absolutely nothing. The feminist police will not come lock you up for creepiness in the third degree.

Some quick tips to avoid being creepy:

  • Like I said above in the “flirting” section, don’t begin a conversation by approaching people from behind, screaming, grabbing them, saying something offensive, or otherwise behaving in a way that would make a normal bystander go “hey, what the fuck?”
  • If you’re doing something that violates a social norm, such as telling a strange woman that she’s beautiful, begin with “excuse me, I know this is random,” “I don’t usually do this,” or “I’ve never done this before.”
  • Don’t be sexual to strangers (e.g. “you have nice tits”) unless the context is one in which it is appropriate. (If you’re in a context like that, you’ll know.)
  • Try to match up your intentions with your actions. If your body language says “I want to fuck you” but your words say “let us have a purely platonic conversation about the weather,” you’re more likely to come off as creepy.
  • Be, yes, non-needy and vulnerable. You’re much more likely to come off as creepy if your subtext says “PLEASE LOVE ME.”

 

Do Some Trans People Pass? The Results

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The first five pictures were of cisgender women; the second five pictures were of transgender women.

(Yes, I’m lazy.)

The cisgender pictures are from r/selfie; the transgender pictures are from r/transpassing, a subreddit where people post pictures of themselves to see whether they pass. Both were from the most upvoted pictures of the last month. The trans girl who hadn’t taken HRT was #8, the second girl with a flower crown; an astonishing 37% of voters thought she was cisgender.

Of the five cisgender girls, two were conclusively identified as cisgender, while three had less than sixty percent of voters identify them as either cis or trans. In two cases, the voters leaned towards cisgender, while in one case, the voters leaned towards transgender. Of the five transgender girls, three were conclusively identified as transgender, one was conclusively identified as cisgender, and the remaining girl was not conclusively identified either way, although voters leaned towards her being transgender.

My initial predictions were wrong; I thought that people would be far more likely to misidentify transgender people as cisgender and vice versa than they actually were. In fact, with two exceptions (one cis and one trans), the lean of the vote was in the correct direction.

However, I found the lack of consensus striking. I defined “lack of consensus” as failing to get at least sixty percent of voters to agree on whether you’re cisgender or transgender; by this relatively narrow definition, four women’s pictures were unidentifiable. Using a broader definition, in which fewer than two-thirds of voters agree, six women’s pictures were unidentifiable as cisgender or transgender. As qualitative evidence, several commenters mentioned that, if they hadn’t known that five of the pictures were of trans women, they would have assumed all or nearly all the pictures were of cisgender women.

My interpretation of this data is that base rates matter. Many people– I would roughly guess about half the population– are not readily identifiable as cisgender or transgender if there’s a 50/50 chance that they’re cis or trans. However, in the real world, 99.7% of people are cisgender; for this reason, pretty much all ambiguous people are read as cisgender all the time.

What matters, of course, is not the actual base rate but the perceived base rate. Sophia Kovaleva commented on the original post:

I recently spent 20 minutes arguing with Russian border control agents that my passport is mine, and the incorrect gender marker in it is not a result of “a technical mistake on the part of the organization that issued the passport”. Never mind bone structure or height or the pitch and resonance of the voice – they couldn’t clock me despite seeing my passport and having me literally saying “I’m trans” (well, technically I was saying “I’m changing my sex” in order for this statement to be accessible to them).

Of course, Russia is a very traditional and transphobic country, so the perceived base rate of trans people is extraordinarily low, perhaps zero. No amount of evidence would cause people to update in favor.

I myself have noticed that context matters. When I lived in a Southern state, I passed as male if I cut my hair, wore a button-down shirt, and didn’t talk very much– except when I went to anime conventions. Since many people crossplay at anime conventions, people didn’t expect that someone in male clothing would be male. Now that I live in San Francisco, I rarely pass: people expect butch women to exist. (Inexplicably, having green hair caused me to be read as male, until I started carrying around a baby a lot of the time, at which point people started reading me as female again. I have attempted to persuade my husband to wear a dress in an attempt to confuse people into gendering me as male, but no dice.)

This suggests an unfortunate tradeoff for transgender people. The feminist, trans-friendly places where being perceived as trans is least dangerous are exactly the places where it is most difficult for us to go stealth.

Book Reviews for April

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Whores and Other Feminists: An interesting anthology, but profoundly marred by its inclusion of only relatively privileged sex workers. More essayists worked at a single San Francisco peep show, the Lusty Lady, than did street sex work. While many contributors were queer, there was no discussion of intersections of sex work with addiction, abuse, or immigration, and the contributors of color were safely cordoned off in their own section. Interesting essays include those by sex work feminist foremothers Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley, as well as an interview with a butch lesbian second-wave feminist who accidentally got a substantial fraction of her local second-wave lesbian feminist community to work at an erotic massage parlor. Also, I am as disappointed as anyone that dapper butch escort for lesbians is not a profitable profession.

Even among this group of relatively privileged sex workers, all of them acknowledge that sex work is not “empowering” but instead just a job– and often a crappy one at that. (The one exception is a New Agey sex worker who identifies as a sacred whore. This is a very San Franciscan book.) It’s just that, as crappy as their jobs are, the situation won’t be improved by making it illegal. Hopefully this will put to bed the straw man that sex workers’ rights activists think that sex work should be legal because of how ~empowering~ it is.

Conquering GRE Math: A very complete review of the math that’s on the GRE. It concentrates more on computation than on the mathematical reasoning that the GRE mostly tests.

The Unschooling Handbook: Probably the best unschooling book I’ve read so far. Instead of endlessly discussing the principles of unschooling and children’s natural desire to learn, the unschooling handbook focuses on what it’s like to unschool, including three chapters that describe weeks in the life of three different unschooling families and an extensive list of resources.

The Unschooling Handbook is fairly old, so its discussion of the Internet is hilariously out of date. (“We have the Internet at our library, but we only use it to check our email– there are so many books to read!”) I continue to be suspicious of claims about the educational value of video games and television.

To unschool reading: read to your children, have an environment full of text, play pre-reading games, and guide them to books that match their interests. To unschool writing: offer opportunities to write stories, poetry, and essays; reluctant writers may enjoy having a pen pal. To unschool math: play math games and do math puzzles; look for math in everyday life, such as cooking and allowances; have math manipulatives such as tangrams and Cuisenaire rods; play games that involve a math element, such as most card games (probability); read books about math and watch math videos. To unschool science: encourage experimentation; read books about science and watch science videos; take trips to museums, parks, and zoos; have scientific tools such as a microscope and a telescope. To unschool history: maintain a timeline; read history books, especially biographies; study genealogy; go to living history events; read and watch historical fiction and critique the inaccuracies; travel. To unschool the arts: let children experiment with music, painting, sculpture, and acting; buy nice art supplies, which allow children to produce higher-quality and more satisfying art. In each subject, follow the child’s interests: it’s okay if they learn all about the rainforest but never quite get to learning about Pluto.

[content warning: child abuse]

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption: Learn from my mistakes: Don’t read this book when you have a newborn baby or you will start crying while clutching your baby and demanding reassurance that no one will steal him from you.

A fascinating work of investigative journalism about Georgia Tann, one of the women who popularized adoption in the twentieth century. Tann was a piece of work. She took children from their parents who loved them and wanted them, often justifying it because the parents were poor. Some children, taken for adoption at age four or six, lived for decades without knowing whether their parents or siblings were alive. Tann would lie to parents that their children had died and then take the child for adoption. Tann ran ads with adorable pictures of adoptable babies, encouraging people to adopt a child for Christmas as if they were a puppy. She did only the most cursory screening of adoptive parents; many adoptees were abused or treated as slaves. One adoptive parent even screamed at her child that if she had known he would be such a disappointment she wouldn’t have paid so much for him. Tann was neglectful of the children she took for adoption; in fact, her neglectfulness managed to raise the Memphis infant mortality rate to the point that the US government investigated.

Tann was also a lesbian. I guess it’s… nice?… to have LGBT representation among totally evil people.

Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy: An Illustrated Manual: A clearly written explanation of sensate focus, intended for clinicians.

Sensate focus is the Swiss army knife of sex therapy interventions, useful for everything from premature ejaculation to sexual trauma. At its core, sensate focus is very similar to mindfulness: you touch your partner, focusing only on the physical sensations of touch, such as soft/hard, hot/cold, or smooth/rough. You touch the parts of your partner’s body you find interesting to touch. Arousal may happen, but it is not expected; sensate focus has no particular goal other than exploring your partner’s body. Over the course of a few months, a couple undergoing sensate focus passes through several stages: alternating touching, with breasts and genitals off limits; alternating touching with breasts and genitals allowed; simultaneous touching; touching genitals to genitals; PIV without movement; PIV with movement.

The book has a useful chapter about adapting sensate focus for different problems: for example, a patient with hypoactive sexual desire may need to be coached in developing a sexual fantasy life and encouraged to read or view erotic literature. The book has a much less useful chapter about adapting sensate focus for sexual minority groups (LGBT people, kinky people, poly people), which mostly says that they can do sensate focus like anyone else. It would be interesting if they had talked about, say, whether one could use pain play during sensate focus or the common trans experience of dissociating during sex.

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest To Make Doctors Believe In Women’s Pain: A harrowing and engrossing memoir about one woman’s experience with endometriosis. Full of interesting facts about endometriosis: did you know that some female fetuses have endometriosis? Norman experienced a depressing amount of medical sexism, such as a doctor whose primary goal was not preventing her pain but saving her fertility (despite the fact that she wasn’t sure whether she wanted children and was in so much pain she was incapable of enjoying PIV). I think people who have never had a uterus should read this memoir so that they can feel properly grateful.

[Spoilers for the Octavian Nothing series.]

The Pox Party: I adored the premise of this book. On the eve of the Revolution, a teenage slave who believes he is an African prince is being educated by a set of eccentric Enlightenment philosophers intent on discovering whether black people have the same intellectual capacity as white people.

Unfortunately, the sequel was far less engrossing due to replacing the eccentric Enlightenment philosophers with assorted Loyalist soldiers, and I quit halfway through.

I am confused about the definition of YA. Does it just mean “has a teenage protagonist”? Because there were multiple gruesome torture scenes in this book and while I support teenagers reading whatever they want I think some adults might have objections.

Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom: I read this book to gain more insight into the social conservative point of view.

I think what Anderson calls the consent-based and the conjugal views of marriage are both coherent. The consent-based view holds that marriage is a private matter between people who love each other. The purpose of legal marriage is to provide certain benefits people usually want to give to people they love, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights. Socially, if we don’t recognize a couple as married, we’re implicitly saying that they don’t love each other.

The conjugal view, however, views marriage as primarily a vehicle for the production of children. Anderson tries to spiritualize it, but I think for most of the past this was primarily an economic arrangement. Children are not any different from any other economic value husbands and wives provided for each other, from clothes to agriculture. (It’s important to note that only relatively recently did children become a net economic drain on their parents.) Gay marriage, premarital sex, divorce, and adultery can all be coherently forbidden from this point of view. However, I think it has implications that social conservatives don’t particularly like: most notably, that love between the couple is also irrelevant. It’s nice if it happens, but if you’re vaguely fond of each other and you have an economically productive household, that is an entirely successful marriage. (Notably, many marriages in a conjugal model are arranged.)

“Love is irrelevant to marriage, you should be happy to marry someone who’s nice but whom you have no particular romantic feelings for and then have lots of babies” is a hard pill for straight people to swallow, and I don’t blame Anderson for trying to get around it. But I don’t think you can. If you accept love as a valid basis for marriage, gay marriage, no-fault divorce, and the rest come along with it.

I found Anderson’s religious freedom arguments often unconvincing. If the state requires that all adoption agencies give children to gay couples, and then the adoption agencies refuse and close, it’s not really a violation of their religious freedom. You don’t have a religious-freedom right to run an adoption agency. Similarly, if the state required that all doctors provide actual medicine, and you are a Christian scientist doctor who believes you should never treat any illness with anything except prayer, I do not think it would be a violation of religious freedom for them to revoke your medical license. You have a right to believe whatever you like and to practice your faith freely, but you don’t have a right to have special exceptions to religion-neutral rules.

You also don’t have a religious-freedom right for other people not to boycott your business. Like, really, this is not a right that exists at all. I am sympathetic to the desires of assorted wedding-cake bakers not to bake cakes for gay weddings, but it is a bit much to say that not only should you have the legal right to refuse service to gay weddings but you should also have the right not to face any consequences of your actions whatsoever.

I thought it was very amusing how Anderson would advocate for traditional marriage and then pull out slippery-slope arguments about polygamy. A man marrying multiple wives is very traditional.

Uniquely Human: A Different Way Of Seeing Autism: This is the single book that most eloquently expressed how my own autism works. Prizant emphasizes the role of anxiety in autism. Much autistic behavior– from the emphasis on routines, to stimming, to meltdowns, to infodumps–. can be understood as a way of trying to cope with an overwhelming world. He emphasizes that both sensory issues and social problems can create a world that causes anxiety for autistic people, and it makes sense that we would want to maintain a sense of control. He discusses the importance of understanding echolalia as a form of communication, not as meaningless parroting. He explains that enthusiasms– whether it’s an interest in space, car license plates, or the way your fingers look when you draw them across your face– should be encouraged and used as a tool to help educate autistic people, not eliminated. It may be necessary to teach autistic children to take turns in conversation and infodump consensually, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever infodump at all. Prizant says that there is no autistic behavior, even the “severest”, that is without parallel in allistic people; I think that is likely to be accurate.

Unfortunately, Prizant focuses consistently on parents of autistic children. Even when he discusses autistic adults, it is to encourage the parents of autistic children by telling them that their children might be happy someday. I don’t resent parents of autistic children having books at all. But if a book is entitled “A Different Way of Seeing Autism” instead of “A Different Way For Parents To See Their Autistic Children,” I expect it to discuss autistic adults (who, after all, are more common than autistic children) and to target both autistic people ourselves and our non-parental loved ones.

Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It): One thing I absolutely loved about this book is that after Anderson wraps up her main argument there are three essays by other experts disagreeing with her. That is amazing. Every nonfiction book should do this.

Anderson’s argument is that employers can be productively understood as “private governments”; specifically, they are typically centrally planned authoritarian dictatorships. Employers often have minute control over every detail of their employees’ working lives, from dress to speech; workers have minimal right to privacy and other protections. Employers often extend their dominance into the employees’ private lives: most famously, employees from across the political spectrum have been fired for their off-duty speech. Unless the employee is in a protected group, they have no recourse. Certainly, employees can leave, but “you can always quit” is an argument much like “we don’t need democracy, you can always emigrate.” Many people do not have another country or corporation that wants to take them.

Anderson claims that we don’t notice the government-like nature of the workplace because of our ideologies of the free market. Adam Smith and other original creators of the free-market ideal believed that in a free market most people would own their own small businesses. Whatever the advantages of most people working for pay– ranging from economies of scale to lower risk for employees– if most people are employees, corporate governance becomes an issue.

Anderson suggests that, in addition to making it easier for people to leave their jobs, we should use the public government (the state) to limit employers’ rights, perhaps by forbidding employers firing employees for their off-duty speech or behavior. She also argues that employees should be given a voice in corporate governance, perhaps by reserving some seats on the board of directors for employee-elected people.

If nothing else, highly recommended because you get to read Anderson telling Tyler Cowan to check his privilege.

Do Some Trans People Pass?

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I am occasionally informed that no trans people ever pass, because their physiology and bone structure will inevitably reveal what sex they were assigned at birth. So let’s play a game.

Here are ten ordinary people’s publicly available selfies. Five are trans, five are cis. I am not going to include sources yet, because I don’t want people to be able to look up which is which; sources will be included in the answer key. If one of these is your selfie and you’d rather I not use it, I am happy to remove it. In a few days, I will post an answer key.

I have filtered for picture quality (i.e. nothing where you can’t see the person’s face) but did not deliberately choose pictures where the trans people passed particularly well. One trans person included is pre-HRT. All pictures are of women because men, regardless of assigned sex at birth, are much less likely to take selfies.

Ways of Thinking About Psychological Gender Differences

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Broadly speaking, I’ve noticed three different ways people can think about psychological gender differences: they can say there is no difference between men and women on a particular trait, they can say that there are two overlapping bell curves, or they can say that there is a fundamental, essential difference between men and women.

(To be clear, this is different from saying the difference is genetic or environmental. Whatever the cause of a psychological difference– genetic, environmental, or both– a person may think it resembles overlapping bell curves or that it is a fundamental and essential difference.)

First, some people think men and women are the same on a particular trait: for example, they might argue that men’s emotions are just as strong as women’s, that women are just as interested in sex as men are, or that men talk just as much as women do. They might think people are mistaken about the alleged difference: for example, the blog Language Log has written many posts arguing that men talk just as much as women do.

Sometimes, however, people think that men and women behave differently, but not because of an underlying psychological difference. They might believe that men and women face different incentives. For example, they might think that women are less likely than men to be interested in casual sex, not because they like casual sex less in the abstract, but because women are more likely than men to be shamed for having casual sex and less likely than men to have orgasms during casual sex. They might believe that women take more maternity leave than men do paternity leave because women have to recover from the physically difficult ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth and because pumping breastmilk is very inconvenient. Other times, people believe that different behavior is a product of discrimination. For example, women might be less likely to work in a particular field because hiring managers assume that they are incompetent.

Second, some people believe that there’s a psychological difference between men and women on the population level, but that many men have the more female-typical version of the trait and many women have the more male-typical version of the trait. This is easiest to see in a picture:

Source: http://www.barbellmedicine.com/the-beauty-of-the-bell-curve/

(Note that, in many cases, a person may believe the means are closer together than they are in this picture.)

An obvious example of a physical overlapping-bell-curves trait is height. Men are generally taller than women, but there are still lots of short men and tall women, and it’s not that surprising if any particular woman is taller than any particular man. Similarly, a person might believe that sex drive is an overlapping-bell-curves trait: men typically have higher libidos than women, but many men with low libidos and women with high libidos exist, and it’s not that surprising to find a heterosexual couple in which the woman has a higher libido than the man.

Third, some people believe in fundamental and essential differences between men and women. I’m going to do the worst job describing this one, because I basically don’t believe in fundamental and essential differences between men and women, but I’ll do my best.

The easiest way to observe this belief in the wild is to go to a bookstore’s relationship self-help section, where you will encounter books like Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs, Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus, and Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man. (Methodology: I looked on Amazon’s relationships bestseller list for books about gender.) As part of their fundamental premise, these books assume that no men primarily desire love, that no women want to retreat into their caves and refuse to talk to anyone when they’re upset, and that no men are willing to date women who don’t want sex that much.

But these beliefs affect more than relationship advice. I was recently reading Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, which made the following argument against gay marriage (edited for space):

The complementarity that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman is crucial as well for the raising of children. There is no such thing as “parenting.” There is mothering, and there is fathering, and children do best with both…

[University of Virginia sociologist] Wilcox finds that “most fathers and mothers possess sex-specific talents related to parenting, and societies should organize parenting and work roles to take advantage of the way in which these talents tend to be distributed in sex-specific ways.” These differences are not the result of gender roles or sex stereotypes. They are a matter of what comes naturally to moms and dads, what moms and dads enjoy doing with their children…

[Rutgers University sociologist] Popenoe concludes:

“We should disavow the notion that “mommies can make good daddies,” just as we should disavow the popular notion . . . that “daddies can make good mommies.” . . . The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.”

What are the distinctive gifts of mothers and fathers? Wilcox reports, “Among the many distinctive talents that mothers bring to the parenting enterprise, three stand out: their capacity to breastfeed, their ability to understand infants and children, and their ability to offer nurture and comfort to their children.” And fathers, Wilcox writes, “excel when it comes to discipline, play, and challenging their children to embrace life’s challenges.”

As Popenoe explains:

“The complementarity of male and female parenting styles is striking and of enormous importance to a child’s overall development. . . . [F]athers express more concern for the child’s long-term development, while mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being (which, of course, in its own way has everything to do with a child’s long-term well-being.) . . . [T]he disciplinary approach of fathers tends to be “firm” while that of mothers tends to be “responsive.” While mothers provide an important flexibility and sympathy in their discipline, fathers provide ultimate predictability and consistency. Both dimensions are critical for an efficient, balanced, and humane childrearing regime.’

This argument makes little sense from a non-essentialist point of view. From the point of view that psychological gender differences don’t exist, of course, it is nonsensical. With the exception of the capacity to breastfeed (which people with XY chromosomes do not have absent copious medical intervention), they argue, there is no reason that a parent of any gender can’t have any of those capacities. Who says fathers can’t nurture and mothers can’t discipline?

From an overlapping-bell-curves perspective, it is also silly. There are many more heterosexuals than there are gay people, and heterosexuals are more likely than gay people to have children. If even ten percent of women are as firm as the average man, then there are many more children who have a father and an unusually disciplinarian mother than there are children who have lesbian parents. Therefore, it makes sense to prioritize the unusual people getting married issue, perhaps by raising awareness that if you are a man who cares a lot about your child’s immediate well-being you should make sure to have children with a woman who prioritizes the future. (Alternately, since they’re willing to forbid gay marriage, perhaps they should require heterosexuals to take some sort of personality test to get married.)

But if men and women are basically different, those arguments sound like nitpicking. Sure, there are probably some playful women somewhere (they might argue), just like there are some people who only have one hand and some people who have eleven toes, but no one says “human beings have two hands except for certain people who have experienced tragic accidents.” At their core, men and women are basically different, and it makes sense to make policy based on that.

(Before the feminists and men’s rights activists of my blog howl, I’d like to point out that this is how the most striking physical sex differences actually work: there are in fact no cisgender men who can get pregnant and no cisgender women who can produce sperm. From a purely theoretical perspective, it’s not that odd to postulate that some psychological sex differences are equally striking.)

Awkwardness and Verbal Consent

There are a lot of things you can say in favor of a norm of using affirmative verbal consent while having sex. It accommodates people who have a hard time reading other people’s body language, whether because of inexperience or an impairment. It lets people negotiate more specific desires and communicate their preferences more easily. For many people, it decreases ambiguity.

But the real reason I use it is that the alternative seems awkward.

I have a hard time imagining how one would even go about having sex without using affirmative verbal consent. I instinctively imagine it as being a game of Charades. “Three syllables… starts with S… rhymes with ‘duck by dock’…”

Setting that aside and genuinely trying to imagine it as best I can, I can’t help but imagine awkwardness. What if I put my hands down someone’s pants when they just wanted to make out, and then they have to say “uh, I actually don’t want that” and it totally breaks the mood? What if I’m not sure if my partner’s into it and I can’t check? How do I say when I want something? Do you just sort of pull away to get a condom, and how does your partner tell that apart from pulling away because you don’t want sex? Am I allowed to tell them that they’re sexy? For fuck’s sake, how do you ever get out of that state where you’re both cuddling on the bed together and you want to have sex but you keep getting distracted arguing about Star Wars?

(And yes, when I have had sex without affirmative verbal consent, it has been hella awkward.)

I observe that when people say they don’t want to use affirmative verbal consent, a lot of times they say they don’t want to use it because it’s awkward. It breaks the mood to ask the other person if they want to kiss. They’re not sure how often they should ask or how to ask without sounding creepy or supplicating. They kind of think the entire business sounds like signing a contract that says that the undersigned, being of sound mind, consents to seven (7) kisses and gentle caresses around the area of the left buttock.

I used to think “you people are crazy, obviously verbal consent is the only non-awkward way to do things.” But now I think we’re both right.

I am used to using verbal affirmative consent. Other people are used to using nonverbal affirmative consent. Either way, our default actions, our instincts, our ability to read others, is based on a certain set of norms. Of course it’s awkward to try to use a different set of norms! We don’t know what we’re doing, what’s acceptable or unacceptable, or how to tell if the other person is into it. It’s just like switching any other set of norms. There’s nothing inherently awkward about driving on the right side of the street, but you’ll certainly feel awkward if you’re used to driving on the left.

Link Post for May

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I’ve been posting my book reviews on Goodreads recently instead of here; I’m interested in people’s thoughts about whether I should crosspost or whether you want to just read it here.

Violence

Better Angels of Our Nature misrepresents data.

An in-depth debunking of myths about campus rape statistics. Covers both feminist and anti-feminist myths.

Effective Altruism

A thoughtful critique of several common EA tropes, including some I support. This is the sort of disagreement we should encourage in effective altruism.

Holden Karnofsky’s AMA about working for the Open Philanthropy Project.

Men’s Issues

What happened to the black autistic man whose therapist was shot by police while trying to protect him?

Racial gaps in upward mobility are primarily driven by a gap between the upward mobility of black men and white men; major causes appear to be incarceration and black men growing up in shitty neighborhoods.

Positive portrays of masculinity.

Health

NIH RCT of moderate drinking funded by the alcohol industry.

I used to think only I relived all my most embarrassing memories all the time, but it turns out that’s an everyone thing. The solution is self-compassion. How about something easier like climbing Mount Everest?

Just Plain Neat

Why open plan offices don’t work.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg has a blog! It is as delightful as his many fans have come to expect.

Some Crucial Considerations for WAS

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A “crucial consideration”– a term invented by Nick Bostrom— is a piece of evidence that radically changes the value of pursuing a particular intervention or focus area. For example, if a particular piece of technology is scientifically impossible, it’s not very effective to pursue developing it anyway; if animals are not moral patients, then it doesn’t make sense to advocate against factory farming. Since so little is known about how to best pursue wild-animal welfare, there are a lot of crucial considerations, and having different opinions on them may radically change what interventions you support and how cost-effective the interventions are. This is a summary of some crucial considerations that effective altruists reasonably disagree on, but does not try to advocate for any particular view or resolve them. (That would take a lot more than a single blog post.)

Do we support animal rights, animal welfare, or human responsibility for domestic animals?

Among the animal activism community, there are several different philosophies about how we should treat animals. Animal rights advocates such as Tom Regan argue that animals have a right to live free from exploitation, such as in medical research or agriculture. Animal welfare advocates such as Peter Singer argue that many of the ways we treat animals cause them great suffering and give us relatively trivial benefits. Since it is wrong to cause a being suffering except to prevent a greater suffering, we must stop mistreating animals. Still others argue that we have a specific duty to domestic animals, because we domesticated them, and the way animals are used in animal agriculture is neglecting that responsibility. I will discuss the implications of these views for wild-animal welfare in later blog posts, but suffice it to say that all three views have different implications about how we should treat wild animals.

What population ethics do we subscribe to?

Population ethics is the ethical study of issues related to creating beings and causing beings to stop existing. Population ethics examines issues like:

  • Is it better to create a small number of very happy people or a large number of somewhat happy people?
  • Is it wrong to fail to create a happy being, or to create a predictably unhappy being?
  • Is it possible to hurt people who don’t exist yet (for example, by polluting the Earth)?
  • Is not creating a being different from killing a being? If so, why?

Many of the ways human beings affect nature affect the number of animals that exist, not simply the welfare of animals that exist. For example, sometimes humans destroy habitats that support many animals and replace them with habitats that don’t support many animals at all. Sometimes humans try to reduce the populations of certain species, such as rats and deer. Many potential interventions into wild-animal suffering, such as wildlife contraception, prevent animals from existing. Unfortunately for wild-animal welfare advocates, however, there is no philosophical consensus on population ethics, and most systems of population ethics violate some of our moral intuitions.

Are invertebrates moral patients?

There are many orders of magnitude more invertebrates than vertebrates in the world. If invertebrates have even a little moral weight, the effects of our actions on invertebrates are very important. Unfortunately, invertebrates often have thousands of offspring. To maintain a stable population, only two of their offspring can survive to reproduce; the rest can be expected to live short lives potentially filled with terrible pain. Since there are so many invertebrates and many of them are so small, it is difficult to improve their lives in any way other than preventing them from existing.

Does biodiversity matter?

Many people argue that protecting biodiversity improves human well-being. The services provided by intact ecosystems– ranging from timber to climate regulation, soil formation to spiritual benefits– have been valued at tens of trillions of dollars a year. Many people also believe that biodiversity is intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Certain proposed interventions to promote wild-animal welfare, such as habitat destruction, reduce the level of biodiversity. Future research may find that other promising ways to promote wild-animal welfare have an effect on biodiversity, and if we care about biodiversity (either instrumentally or intrinsically) that will affect our decision-making about interventions.

How unpredictable is nature?

Nature is complicated, and many decisions have unexpected consequences. We see that already when we interact with nature for human benefit. After a few years of unexpectedly bad weather, a fishery believed to be sustainably fished can collapse. Fertilizer runoff from farms can cause more algae to grow, which increases the density of snails, which are an intermediate host for a species of frog parasites, which causes higher parasite loads in frogs. If nature is sufficiently unpredictable, it may be very difficult to come up with an intervention that we’re sure has a positive effect. On the other hand, humans do make many accurate predictions about nature: if we couldn’t, it’d be impossible to know that habitat destruction makes species more likely to be endangered or that climate change harms ecosystems. It may be possible to make sufficiently reliable predictions about how our actions affect wild-animal welfare as well.

How common is chronic stress in nature?

Chronic stress happens when an animal experiences a stressor, such as low social status or hunger, for a long period of time; in humans, it is linked not only to anxiety and depression but to physical health conditions like heart disease. Experts disagree wildly about how common chronic stress is in nature. Some experts, like Oscar Horta, argue that predation and other stressors make chronic stress very common. Other experts, like Robert Sapolsky, claim that chronic stress is basically unknown in nature. Still other experts, like Rudy Boonstra, say that chronic stress appears only in certain species in which it is adaptive. If most wild animals experience a great deal of chronic stress, it’s more likely that their lives aren’t worth living. Conversely, if wild animals experience far less chronic stress than humans, their lives may be more pleasant than ours.

How bad is dying?

Many deaths in the wild are fairly gruesome, ranging from animals that are eaten alive by predators to termites that vomit up their guts at predators. But how painful are those deaths? It is possible that death by starvation, for example, is less painful than one would naively believe. Conversely, if death is extraordinarily painful, the death itself may make an animal’s life not worth living, even if otherwise the animal was very happy. That is particularly true for short-lived species, who have fewer positive experiences to outweigh the cost of a horrible death.

How do we account for leverage?

Many charities seek to influence how other charities, private donors, or the government spend money or other resources; the charity evaluator GiveWell calls this leverage. Several of the most promising interventions into wild-animal suffering– including encouraging the use of wildlife contraception, spreading concern about wild animals, and seeding the field of welfare biology– are highly leveraged. Depending on how one accounts for the opportunity cost, these interventions may be very cost-effective or not very cost-effective at all.