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.

Sociosexuality Results

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I recently ran a survey about whether women date assholes. Since I was already collecting information about people’s assholishness and their sexual history, I thought I would also test another hypothesis of mine.

Sociosexual orientation is your willingness to engage in sex outside of a committed relationship. In general, people with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (that is, who enjoy sex with people they don’t know very well) are assholes. However, the unrestricted people I know– including myself– are all perfectly nice. I wondered if perhaps this was because in sexually conservative communities having lots of casual sex means leading on people who want to be in a relationship with you, while in my community having lots of casual sex means you like a lot of different people.

The Methods

There were 440 responses. Of these, 27 were deleted for being monogamous, single but preferring monogamy, or aromantic-asexual, leaving us with 413 responses. Since all participants are answering a survey about polyamory, it is assumed that they are all in sex-positive communities. If this is not true, it may be a weakness of the survey.

I used several different ways of operationalizing assholery. I used the Ten Item Personality Measure, which measures the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Disagreeableness is the trait of being untrusting, selfish, cold, and uncooperative. In retrospect, while I was using the shortest inventories for each I could find to avoid burdening my respondents, I should have used a more detailed Big Five instrument. The TIPI caused the most complaints among my respondents, and I am afraid that I lost some accuracy in measurement by using such a short instrument.

I also used the Dark Triad of Personality instrument. The Dark Triad of Personality measures three personality traits: machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. People high in machiavellianism manipulate, exploit, and deceive others. People high in narcissism are proud, egotistical, and unlikely to empathize with others. People high in psychopathy are impulsive, selfish, remorseless, and prone to antisocial behavior.

Finally, I used the Conflict Tactics Scale, which measures abusiveness. While the Conflict Tactics Scale has often been criticized by feminist researchers, it is the easiest method I am aware of to measure abusiveness. The Conflict Tactics Scale was the only one I edited (I changed some wording to make it be poly-inclusive, and I do not think this is likely to have a significant effect on the results). There were many critiques from respondents that the Conflict Tactics Scale did not make it sufficiently clear that questions about hitting your partner and forcing them into sex excluded doing so as part of kink play. While all respondents who complained understood what was meant and excluded kink, it is possible that some respondents did not.

I used one measure of sociosexuality, the Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory. Two-thirds of the questions on the Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory measure desire for casual sex, not how much casual sex you actually have; however, one third are about actual amount of casual sex had.

Results

The p-value of the correlation between extroversion and sociosexuality is significant at .000001. The r-value is 0.235, which is moderate. I can conclusively state that extroverts have higher sociosexualities than introverts. This is not particularly surprising.

The p-value of the correlation between openness and sociosexuality is .0001. The r-value is 0.156, which is small. Highly open people have higher sociosexualities than people who are not highly open. This is also not particularly surprising.

The p-value of the correlation between narcissism and sociosexuality is .00000002. The r-value is 0.269, which is moderate. Narcissists have higher sociosexualities than non-narcissists.

The p-value of the correlation between psychopathy and sociosexuality is .00000000008. The r-value is 0.311. This is the largest effect on our survey. However, one of the questions on the psychopathy instrument is “I enjoy having sex with people I hardly know,” which seems likely to confound the data. After I dropped that item, the p-value was .007 and the r-value was .13. This suggests that psychopaths have higher sociosexualities than non-psychopaths, but the effect is small.

The p-value of the correlation between abusiveness and sociosexuality is .009. The r-value is .129. Again, abusive people have higher sociosexualities than non-abusive people, but the effect is small.

No other results were significant.

Conclusions

This is my current model for explaining the data; it may be inaccurate. I think I was right that people with unrestricted sociosexualities in sex-positive communities are less likely to be jerks, because in a non-sex-positive community having a lot of casual sex often means leading people on and other anti-social behavior. That explains why disagreeableness and machiavellianism are no different between poly people with unrestricted sociosexualities and poly people with restricted sociosexualities, even though unrestricted people in the general population tend to be more machiavellian and disagreeable.

However, I failed to take into account that psychopaths tend to have an unrestricted sociosexuality, and that there is no reason to believe that this is different between poly and monogamous communities. I believe this also explains the abusiveness data. The effect size for psychopathy is quite small, which I think reflects the reality that while psychopaths tend to be unrestricted most unrestricted people are not psychopaths.

Finally, I think that people with unrestricted sociosexualities do tend to be extroverted and narcissistic. While I don’t observe this trend personally, I think that this is probably because I either am bad at noticing narcissists or tend to interact with people similar to myself (introverted and non-narcissistic).

The Fed Is Best Foundation Encourages Mommy Guilt Through Bad Science

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Several skeptical parenting blogs I read have talked about the Fed is Best Foundation. The Fed is Best Foundation advocates for greater awareness of women who can’t produce adequate milk and fights against overzealous pushing of breastfeeding.

Of course, I agree that many breastfeeding advocates have gone beyond the science in pushing the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has small but clear health benefits in the first year of life, and may increase your child’s IQ; all other alleged “benefits” have not been shown to be true by high-quality evidence. Babies can be raised to happy, thriving adulthood on formula, breastmilk, or a combination. Support for breastfeeding parents must never pass into pressure to breastfeed– particularly for women who, for medical reasons, are incapable of producing enough milk. Guilt about not breastfeeding is entirely unjustified and it is wrong for people to make formula-feeding mothers feel guilty.

However, the Fed is Best Foundation goes beyond the science as well.

In the open letter explaining her position, Dr. del Castillo-Hegyi, the founder of the Fed is Best Foundation, writes:

My son was born 8 pounds and 11 ounces after a healthy pregnancy and normal uneventful vaginal delivery.  He was placed directly on my chest and was nursed immediately.  He was nursed on demand for 20-30 minutes every 3 hours.  Each day of our stay in the hospital, he was seen by the pediatrician as well as the lactation consultant who noted that he had a perfect latch.  He produced the expected number of wet and dirty diapers.  He was noted to be jaundiced by the second day of life and had a transcutaneous bilirubin of 8.9.  We were discharged at 48 hours at 5% weight loss with next-day follow-up.  We were told by the lactation consultant before discharge that he would be hungry and we were instructed to just keep putting him on the breast.  Upon getting home, he became fussy and I nursed him longer and longer into the night.  He cried even after nursing and latched back on immediately.  He did not sleep.  By the next morning, he stopped crying and was quiet.  We saw our pediatrician at around 68 hours of life (end of day 3).  Despite producing the expected number of wet and dirty diapers, he had lost 1 pound 5 ounces, about 15% of his birth weight. At the time, we were not aware of and were not told the percentage lost, and having been up all night long trying to feed a hungry baby, we were too exhausted to figure out that this was an incredible amount of weight loss.  He was jaundiced but no bilirubin was checked.  Our pediatrician told us that we had the option of either feeding formula or waiting for my milk to come in at day 4 or 5 of life.  Wanting badly to succeed in breastfeeding him, we went another day unsuccessfully breastfeeding and went to a lactation consultant the next day who weighed his feeding and discovered that he was getting absolutely no milk.  When I pumped and manually expressed, I realized I produced nothing. I imagined the four days of torture he experienced and how 2 days of near-continuous breastfeeding encouraged by breastfeeding manuals was a sign of this. We fed him formula after that visit and he finally fell asleep. Three hours later, we found him unresponsive. We forced milk into his mouth, which made him more alert, but then he seized. We rushed him to the emergency room. He had a barely normal glucose (50 mg/dL), a severe form of dehydration called hypernatremia (157 mEq/L) and severe jaundice (bilirubin 24 mg/dL).  We were reassured that he would be fine, but having done newborn brain injury research, knowing how little time it takes for brain cells to die due to hypoglycemia and severe dehydration, I did not believe it, although I hoped it.

At 3 years and 8 months, our son was diagnosed with severe language impairment, autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, low IQ, fine and gross motor delays.  He was later diagnosed with a seizure disorder associated with injury to the language area of the brain.

By implication, of course, del Castillo-Hegyi’s son’s hypernatremic dehydration caused his autism.

Of course, there is absolutely no evidence that delayed feeding causes intellectual or developmental disability. No one has ever done an actual peer-reviewed study. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it probably doesn’t: as mentioned above, a randomized controlled trial found that increased breastfeeding increases IQ, and breastfeeding appears to reduce the rates of autism or have no effect on it, depending on the study. This would be very very strange if, as the Fed is Best Foundation suggests, delayed feeding is putting thousands of children at risk of developing an intellectual or developmental disability.

When a child gets diagnosed with an intellectual or developmental disability, particularly one like autism, where the causes are poorly understood, many parents search for a reason why this happened to them. Many, in desperation, latch upon pseudoscience like mercury poisoning or vaccines. del Castillo-Hegyi is the latest in a long line of autism parents to comfort themselves with etiologies that aren’t backed up by the facts, although I guess at least she’s creative.

Skeptic parenting blogs would never ever run an article by an autism parent claiming that their child got a vaccine, then got autism, and therefore we shouldn’t be giving babies vaccines. Why is it acceptable to run an article by an autism parent claiming that her child was dehydrated, then got autism, and therefore we should be encouraging fewer women to exclusively breastfeed?

del Castillo-Hegyi fails to present the evidence in a remotely balanced way. In her discussion of transient newborn hypoglycemia, del Castillo-Hegyi dishonestly presents statistics from a study of high-risk infants as if they were from the general population. She also cites a single study in which transient infant hypoglycemia is linked to worse performance on fourth grade achievement tests, failing to note that the study itself says it goes against expert opinion and that policy should not be changed until the study is further validated. She points out that exclusive breastfeeding leads to an elevenfold increase in rehospitalization for dehydration, without mentioning that hospitalization for dehydration is not very common to begin with and that serious sequelae of dehydration are rare. (Modern medicine is awesome.)

Again: this is the exact quality of evidence that lead lactivists to make inflated and inaccurate claims about the benefits of breastfeeding. Skeptic parenting blogs quite rightly call lactivists out on making claims that aren’t backed up by the evidence. Why do they turn around and promote a woman who so distorts the evidence on exclusive breastfeeding?

Unfortunately, the Fed is Best Foundation’s tendency to favor emotional manipulation over statistics does not stop at that essay. Consider this recent blog post, If I Had Given Him Just One Bottle He Would Still Be Alive. I empathize with the author; the death of a child is one of the worst experiences anyone can go through. I understand that her grief makes her want to help other parents not suffer like she did.

Of course, no doubt a similar grief is felt by the mother whose baby died of cronobacter infection from contaminated formula. Or the father whose baby died when he propped the bottle and fell asleep, allowing his baby to choke. Or the many parents whose children died of sudden infant death syndrome, the risk of which may be reduced by breastfeeding. (Unfortunately, I am not aware of a randomized controlled trial or sibling study which examines the effects of breastfeeding on SIDS, and thus have to use lower-quality evidence which may overestimate the effects of breastfeeding.)

This is why we cannot rely on single cases, however much they tug at our heartstrings. In a world of seven billion people, something with a one in a million chance will affect seven thousand people, which is enough for as many heart-wrenching stories as you please.

I was not able to find exact numbers about how many babies die of dehydration in developed countries each year. In the United States, dehydration is not one of the top ten causes of infant death, which collectively account for seven out of ten infant deaths. About 0.4% of hospitalized newborns in a Scottish study were hospitalized for hypernatremic dehydration, suggesting that it is fairly uncommon. I also note the study cited above which says that serious sequelae of dehydration are rare; death is, presumably, a serious sequela. My guess is, therefore, that as tragic as her child’s death of dehydration is, the mother who wrote that article can comfort herself that very few other children will suffer a similar fate.

I empathize with this mother, who feels tremendous guilt. Her child appeared healthy except for crying a lot, and then turned out to be seriously ill in a way no one could have predicted. But her guilt is irrational: most babies who cry a lot do not turn out to have a fatal health condition. And we should not prey on the irrational guilt of mothers who have suffered tragedies to feed the guilt of other parents.

Many parents feel irrational guilt about their parenting choices, and of course I support alleviating that guilt. And there are a lot of people telling lies about how parenting works, and parents need evidence-based guidance to cut through the bullshit. But you don’t magically join the side of Yay Evidence, Boo Guilt the second you say something nice about formula.

Instead, you join the side of Yay Evidence, Boo Guilt if you nonjudgmentally and calmly give parents enough information to make their own decisions based on their own values, paying attention to the quality of evidence and base rates and so on. You need to completely avoid misrepresenting studies and claiming that things cause autism when they don’t. Your posts should contain things like “numbers” and should not contain things like “horrible stories about babies dying of dehydration which will cause every prospective parent reading it to panic that THEY ARE GOING TO MURDER THEIR BABY WITH BREASTFEEDING.”

Unfortunately, the Fed is Best Foundation appears slightly confused about these things. But in the meantime actual skeptics can avoid citing them like they’re not science deniers who happen to be wearing a different team jersey color.

On Peter Singer, Anna Stubblefield, and Rape

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[content warning: ableism, rape apologism, bestiality, rape of children]

Anna Stubblefield has succeeded at the dubious achievement of simultaneously being a rapist three different ways at the same time.

First, Stubblefield used facilitated communication, a discredited way of communicating with nonverbal disabled people, to speak with DJ. Assuming for the sake of argument that facilitated communication works, she was literally his only means of communicating with the outside world; DJ did not successfully use facilitated communication with his family. His ability to get a GED, read books, even say what he wanted for dinner, was entirely dependent on her continued support. This creates a power imbalance in which sex cannot happen ethically. If she had been responsible, she would have said “I have feelings for you too, but we can’t explore them until you have another long-term facilitator who’s able to work with you.” (She would have also checked his desire for sex with her with another, naive facilitator, as is done when a disabled person who uses facilitated communication accuses someone of sexual abuse.)

Of course, facilitated communication does not work; according to the best scientific evidence, facilitated communication works something like a Oujia board, and what you get out of it is what the facilitator put in. So she raped him in a second fashion, by having sex with a nonverbal disabled person without taking the appropriate measures to ensure that he fully consented, instead relying on a pseudoscientific communication technique.

The third way that Stubblefield raped DJ is by ignoring his nonverbal communication: when she kissed him, he sat up, left the bed, and scooted out of the room. She then proceeded to perform oral sex on him. While she believed this was okay because his facilitated communication said he consented, given that facilitated communication does not work, our only means of understanding his preferences implies he did not want this.

Peter Singer has written a controversial editorial about Stubblefield’s case. Several parts of this editorial have been condemned throughout the effective altruist community: for instance, Singer’s defense of the pseudoscientific facilitated communication technique and his failure to mention either the first or the third ways in which Stubblefield raped DJ. However, one passage from his editorial has led to a great deal of argumentation:

A central issue in the trial was whether D.J. is profoundly cognitively impaired, as the prosecution contended and the court seemed to accept, or is competent cognitively but unable to communicate his thoughts without highly skilled assistance, as the defense contended. If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist, and, for reasons we will note shortly, it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him. On the assumption that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, therefore, it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.

This is not exactly what one would call the most lucidly written passage. Several people I respect, including Kelsey and Scott Alexander, have interpreted it differently than I do; they believe the passage says that it is theoretically possible for disabled people who can’t use language to consent to sex. I certainly hope that Singer was trying to say that and failing miserably, and I hope that he edits the article to clarify given the controversy he has engendered.

However, in the overall context of Singer’s work, I believe that a more reasonable and charitable (in that it accurately reflects Singer’s beliefs) interpretation is that Singer believes there is nothing wrong with having sex with a disabled person who can’t use language, regardless of their consent, as long as violence is not used.

Peter Singer regularly compares severely disabled people to animals; one of his most commonly used arguments in favor of animal welfare is that one would not torture a severely disabled person with the cognitive capacities of a chicken, and therefore one should not torture a chicken. He has repeatedly spoken out against speciesism, the belief that one should treat beings of equivalent capacities differently based on their species. Therefore, given that he believes that many non-language-using disabled people have similar capacities to animals, and that it is unethical to treat beings of similar capacities differently based on species, we can use his beliefs about bestiality to enlighten us about what this passage means.

Singer has written in the past about bestiality. He has explicitly outlined forms of bestiality he considers unacceptable:

Soyka’s suggestion indicates one good reason why some of the acts described in Dekkers book are clearly wrong, and should remain crimes. Some men use hens as a sexual object, inserting their penis into the cloaca, an all-purpose channel for wastes and for the passage of the egg. This is usually fatal to the hen, and in some cases she will be deliberately decapitated just before ejaculation in order to intensify the convulsions of its sphincter. This is cruelty, clear and simple. (But is it worse for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings, and then being stuffed into crates to be taken to the slaughterhouse, strung upside down on a conveyor belt and killed? If not, then it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.)

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop. Soyka would presumably have thought this within the range of human sexual variety.

This suggests that Singer may believe that bestiality is morally okay as long as it is mutually satisfying, and that all cases in which the animal initiates are certainly mutually satisfying. However, there is an intermediate case: the case in which the animal is not particularly interested in sex, but is having sex for some other reason. Singer writes:

[Rural men] may also take advantage of the sucking reflex of calves to get them to do a blowjob…

For three-quarters of the women who told Kinsey that they had had sexual contact with an animal, the animal involved was a dog, and actual sexual intercourse was rare. More commonly the woman limited themselves to touching and masturbating the animal, or having their genitals licked by it.

In this case, the animal does not desire sex. The calves are sucking as a reflex action; the dogs are presumably not licking human genitals out of a passionate desire to perform cunnilingus. (My understanding is that people who practice bestiality often put a food, such as peanut butter, on their genitals to induce the dog to lick them.) Singer does not appear to have clarified whether he considers this form of sex to be acceptable. However, given the fact that he mentions it as evidence that bestiality is quite common and does not condemn it, it seems to me that the correct way of interpreting Singer’s belief is that this too is acceptable. In short, it appears that Singer’s view is that it is always okay to have sex with an animal as long as the sex does not involve injury or pain to the animal, particularly if the animal experiences something that is prima facie rewarding (as sucking is to calves and food is to dogs).

Extending this to DJ’s case, I believe that Singer’s passage above means that as long as no injury or pain was done to DJ, and DJ experiences something that is prima facie rewarding (as oral sex is to humans), then sex with him is ethical.

Further evidence is that this explains an otherwise puzzling omission on Singer’s part. Singer says that “[DJ] was capable of struggling to resist, and, for reasons we will note shortly, it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him.” But DJ did, in fact, resist: he attempted to leave. It’s possible that Singer is ignorant of this basic fact of the case. However, Singer himself says he has “stud[ied] the evidence advanced by Stubblefield’s attorney in support of her appeal.” When I searched Google for “anna stubblefield” on incognito mode, the above article was the second result. (The first was Singer’s own.) This is readily available information for anyone who wishes to read about the Stubblefield case. Unless we’re assuming that Singer is both a liar and grossly negligent, we should assume that he is aware of these publicly available facts of the case.

Therefore, the most logical conclusion is that Peter Singer does not consider DJ’s attempt to leave to be a sign of resistance. The idea that, in general, trying to leave isn’t a revocation of consent to sex is absurd rape apologism and I would not slander Singer by claiming he believed it. However, if Singer believes that violence or pain is what makes sex with DJ unethical, then it makes sense for him to point out that there wasn’t any violence or pain. In this context, Singer’s statement makes perfect sense.

The bestiality case illustrates this clearly. One can imagine a situation where you intend to have a calf give you a blowjob, the calf wanders off, you wait a bit for it to stay still, and then you have it give you a blowjob. It seems to me that if bestiality is unethical, this situation is unethical, and if bestiality is ethical, this situation is ethical.

The difference is that calves do not have an abstract, conceptual understanding of sex, because calves do not have an abstract, conceptual understanding of much of anything. A calf is not thinking “I have a consistent preference over time to not have that guy’s penis in my mouth and I’m going to try to communicate this preference through walking out the barn door. Oh, okay, it looks like he’s not going to give in, so I’m going to lie back and think of England.” A calf is thinking “I want to go investigate that sunbeam. Ooh! A thing to suck on!”

However, while I’m sympathetic to this model when we’re talking about sex with calves, I am very unsympathetic when we’re talking about sex with non-language-using humans. Calves have known capacities; severely disabled humans do not. To pick a very clear example: it is vanishingly unlikely that calves are capable of receptive and expressive language, with vocabularies of hundreds of thousands of words, and the only reason they’re not writing poetry to rival William Shakespeare’s is that their vocal cords aren’t shaped right. Receptive and expressive language are complex capacities and there would be absolutely no reason for them to evolve in a species without vocal cords that can produce speech.

Conversely, nearly all humans have receptive and expressive language capacities. We know that some humans retain receptive and expressive language, even if they have lost the ability to speak. For instance, many humans with cerebral palsy have difficulty controlling their mouth muscles, so they can’t speak, but they can communicate with augmentative and auxiliary communication technology. Some autistic humans are intermittently incapable of speech under stress. Therefore, a non-language-using human may lack the capacity to use language altogether, or they may understand language but have such large difficulties using it that (unlike in the case of many humans with cerebral palsy or autism) we can’t tell that they have that capacity.

Of course, language use is not a morally relevant capacity. But the same thing does apply to morally relevant capacities. How are you supposed to tell whether a person who can’t use language understands the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation? I mean, it’s not like you can ask him.

We don’t even have a good sense of the probabilities here. It could be that every non-language-using disabled person has the cognitive abilities of a calf. It could be that every single one of them understands sexual violation. We have no way of distinguishing these two worlds.

I note that Peter Singer agrees with this argument. Inexplicably, he seems to believe that DJ can have the ability to understand sexual violation if and only if facilitated communication works as a way of communicating with him. Since presumably DJ had those capacities (if he does) before he ever met a facilitator, he could also presumably have those capacities even if he cannot communicate them.

Furthermore, it does not seem like the ability to be sexually traumatized is as complicated as all that. One-year-olds in general have a very poor understanding of consent, as one can see by their tendency to hit other toddlers to hear the interesting noises the other toddler makes, but I would expect that fucking a one-year-old would cause them no small amount of emotional harm both in the short and the long run. It certainly seems like a bad idea to decriminalize sex with toddlers on the grounds that they are incapable of giving or withholding consent.

The safest course, I believe, is to assume that DJ is a person (albeit a person with certain diminished capacities). As a person, he is capable of being sexually traumatized. This does not necessarily mean he should be consigned to celibacy. I personally agree with Scott’s proposal:

I wish there were a system in place to protect disabled people from sexual abuse while not banning all sexuality entirely. If you want to do surgery on a disabled person who can’t consent, lots of doctors and lawyers and friends and family get together and do some legal stuff and try to elicit information from the patient as best they can and eventually come to a conclusion. The result isn’t perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than either “no one can ever operate on a disabled person” or “any surgeon who wants can grab a disabled person off the street and do whatever operation they feel like”. If there were some process like this for sex, and they decided that DJ wanted to have sex with Anna, then (again ignoring the power dynamics issue) I think this would be better than either banning him from all sex forever, or letting her have sex with whoever she wants as long as she can make up convincing enough pseudoscience.

Notably, this does seem to not have happened here even in an unofficial way, as one can tell by the fact that the family’s response to Anna revealing that she had sex with DJ was not “woohoo, finally” but “what the FUCK?” and trying to get her to go to jail for twelve years. Which is the second reason that I’ve claimed she’s a rapist.

(The fact that Peter Singer did not say something like “while good consent practices were not used in this case and Stubblefield is a rapist, I want to be clear that it is possible for a neurotypical person to have enjoyable and enriching sex with a non-language-using person if proper care is taken to ensure that they consent” seems to me to be further evidence that my claim about what Singer means is right and he in fact thinks that Stubblefield’s actual behavior is morally acceptable.)

Finally, I’d like to address the issue of abstracting away specific details of the case to talk about underlying philosophical issues. Clearly, it should be acceptable to talk about under what circumstances it is okay for non-language-using people to have sex; clearly, the routine desexualization of intellectually and developmentally disabled people is a grave harm to them.

However, let’s imagine that Peter Singer had instead written an article entitled Who Is The Victim In The Brock Turner Case? In this article, in addition to using pseudoscience to claim that Brock Turner’s victim actually consented, Singer writes that it’s a mistake to assume that sex with unconscious people is unethical just because they can’t verbally revoke consent.

Of course, it is possible to ethically have sex with unconscious people. Many couples enjoy waking each other up with sex. It is very silly for some sex-positive feminists to criticize it for lack of affirmative consent. But it seems to me that making this argument in the context of, you know, an actual rape victim is absurdly offensive and insensitive. Doing so in an article called Who Is The Victim In The Brock Turner Case? in which you argue for clemency for Brock Turner leads one to the conclusion that you’re not just abstractly considering important issues but, in fact, arguing that the particular rape which actually happened is morally unobjectionable and should not be punished.

And it seems to me to be equally objectionable to argue against protests of Who Is The Victim In The Brock Turner Case? by pointing out that it’s harmful to say that waking people up with a blowjob is rape and then saying it’s a shame that Singer didn’t do his homework about the details of the case, whereupon he would realize that Brock Turner did not in fact finger his girlfriend with her previous consent with the intent of allowing her to wake up pleasantly. Brock Turner’s case is clearly and obviously not the same thing as waking up your partner by fingering them, and it is offensive, morally wrong, and worst of all extremely unenlightening to discuss them in the same place.

Intellectual Turing Test Results

Tacitus Browning, author of Blanchard-Bailey ITT entry#5, has come in first place on the Intellectual Turing Test for the gender-identity side, with 79% of voters considering him to be a Blanchardian. tcheasdfjkl is the other winner on the gender-identity side; she also participated in and won the last Intellectual Turing Test.

J, author of gender identity ITT entry #4, has come in first place on the Intellectual Turing Test for the Blanchard-Bailey side. There were no other winners for the Blanchardians.

Tacitus, therefore, is the overall winner of the Intellectual Turing Test.

Finley, author of Blanchard-Bailey ITT entry #4, has won the Strawman Award for Poorly Representing Your Own Side. In spite of the opinion of voters, he is a Blanchardian.

There were three entries on which Blanchardians and gender identity supporters disagreed, although in no case did this disagreement cause a winner to lose or a loser to win. Blanchardians considered Blanchard-Bailey ITT entry #1 to be written by a gender identity supporter, while gender identity supporters believed the author to be a Blanchardian. The Blanchardians were correct. Blanchardians considered ITT gender identity entry #5 to be written by a Blanchardian, while gender identity supporters believed the author to be a gender identity supporter. The gender identity supporters were correct. Blanchardians considered ITT gender identity entry #1 to be written by a Blanchardian, while gender identity supporters believed the author to be a gender identity supporter. Gender identity supporters were correct.

Full rankings are below:

  1. Tacitus Browning, ITT GI #6, 74% gender identity, ITT BB #5, 79% Blanchardian.
  2. tcheasdfjkl, ITT GI #8, 91% gender identity, ITT BB #6, 63% Blanchardian.
  3. loki-zen, ITT GI #7, 74% gender identity, ITT BB #1, 49% Blanchardian.
  4. sigmaleph, ITT GI #5, 51% gender identity, ITT BB #2, 43% Blanchardian.
  5. ReaperReader, ITT GI #1, 71% gender identity, ITT BB #9, 26% Blanchardian.
  6. Alizarin, ITT GI #2, 64% gender identity, ITT BB #7, 16% Blanchardian.

Blanchardians

  1. J, ITT GI #4, 64% gender identity, ITT BB #8, 76% Blanchardian.
  2. Finley, ITT GI #3, 41% gender identity, ITT BB #4, 44% Blanchardian.
  3. Trent Z Andrewson, ITT GI #9, 34% gender identity, ITT BB #3, 85% Blanchardian.