Link Post for June

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Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

Effective Altruism

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

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

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

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

Rationality (Practice)

Visualizations of different meanings of probability.

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

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

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

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

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

The uses of divination.

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

Rationality (Community)

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

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

Parenting

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

Just Plain Neat

Overzealous cleaner ruins artwork worth 690,000 pounds.

Types of loneliness.

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

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

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

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

Questions For Our Opponents, Answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional Sexual Ethics Are Impossible In The Modern Day

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, and most importantly, child mortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thing of Things Advice Column

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

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

How To Write Values Dissonance

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

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

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

The passage containing values dissonance is the following:

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

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

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

“What?” said Akon.  “The Confessors?

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

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

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

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

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

There are three fundamental problems with the passage here.

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

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

And so on and so forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does one learn to write values dissonance?

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

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

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

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

The DSM-IV Believed Women Didn’t Have Paraphilias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe the answer is our friend the Internet.

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

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

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

Further Objections To Three Sentences In An Interview With Ray Blanchard (They’re A Really Bad Three Sentences)

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On Monday, I wrote a post about my most important objection to this answer of Ray Blanchard’s in an interview from 2013:

[Interviewer:] Do you think autoandrophilia, where a woman is aroused by the thought of herself as a man, is a real paraphilia?

[Blanchard:] No, I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism, because there are all these women who want to say, “women can rape too, women can be pedophiles too, women can be exhibitionists too.” It’s a perverse expression of feminism, and so, I thought, let me jump the gun on this. I don’t think the phenomenon even exists.

I wanted to stick to the most important issue in the first post. However, I could not in good conscience refrain from objecting to everything else objectionable about those three sentences.

First: autoandrophilia obviously exists. Autoandrophilia obviously existed in 2013. Archive of Our Own had existed for four years at the time. AO3 hosts an enormous quantity of porn written by women about men having sex with each other; many (although of course not all) of the readers insert themselves as one of the characters in the pairing. The phenomenon of women imagining themselves as men in slash fanfiction dates back to 1966, when the TV show Star Trek began and women began shipping Kirk/Spock. There is honestly no excuse for a person who considers himself a world expert in sexuality related to gender deviance to be unaware that autoandrophiles exist.

As I said in the previous post, Blanchard has recently admitted to the existence of autohomoeroticism, a sexual fetish in which people assigned female at birth are sexually attracted to the idea of being a gay man. He considers this to be extraordinarily rare. (Out of curiosity, I did a small survey on a fandom Discord I frequent and found that 60% of the respondents assigned female at birth were autoandrophiles, although I suppose it is possible that every autohomoerotic person in the world frequents this particular Discord.) It is unclear to me how the hell autohomoeroticism is supposed to be different from autoandrophilia, except that it would be embarrassing to Blanchard to admit he’s wrong because of something as minor as “the facts.”

Second: Blanchard implicitly equates pedophiles, rapists, and exhibitionists with autoandrophiles. Pedophiles and rapists either perform nonconsensual sex acts or are tempted to do so; while people who have sex in front of consenting people are also considered exhibitionists, presumably Blanchard is referring to people who want to show their genitals to or have sex in front of nonconsenting people. Cisgender autoandrophiles might strap on a dildo and get a blowjob from another consenting adult, but they don’t do anything nonconsensual nor are they tempted to do so.

I am glossing over the complicated issue of transgender autoandrophiles, in part due to the disagreement about whether they exist. I have met the occasional self-identified non-dysphoric autoandrophile who has transitioned. In general, they have tried to be indistinguishable from dysphoric trans people and to pass as their preferred gender. This is very unlike rape, pedophilia, or nonconsensual exhibitionism, where the victims know they’re involved in a sex act. It seems rather more like a person getting off on the reactions they get when they wear sexy clothes, or on secretly wearing sexy underwear, or on receiving a hair massage, or whatever: perfectly fine as long as it is not obvious to other people what they’re doing. Whatever you may think of the wisdom of their transitions, it does not seem to be a nonconsensual sex act. Blanchard’s inability to distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual sex acts is appalling.

Third: Blanchard has an openly contemptuous attitude towards the idea that women commit sexual violence. However, women uncontroversially commit sexual violence. In a study conducted in 2010, it was found that 4.8% of men had been, over the course of their lives, forced to penetrate someone through violence, threat of violence, or use of drugs/alcohol, and 6% were coerced into sex. 79.2% of male forced-to-penetrate victims had only female perpetrators, while 83.6% of male sexual coercion victims had only female perpetrators. By comparison, 98.1% of female rape victims had only male perpetrators, and 92.5% of female sexual coercion victims had only male perpetrators, and women are more likely to experience both rape and sexual coercion than men are.

Female child molesters are understudied. However, victimization surveys suggest that somewhere between 14% and 26% of children molested are molested by a woman. Official crime statistics suggest that as few as 1% of children molested are molested by a woman; it is probable that female child molesters are undercounted.

It’s true that men are more likely than women to commit sexual violence. However, a significant minority of victims of sexual violence have female perpetrators. The idea that pointing this out is laughable is rape apologism and morally wrong.

Fourth: Blanchard appears to believe the only reason one would write paragraphs like the above is some sort of bizarre “women can do anything men can do” ethos. It does not seem to occur to him that people would care about supporting the victims of female rapists. I have drafted several sentences in response to this and had an extraordinary difficulty ending them with anything other than “fuck off.”

People– men, women, and nonbinary– are sometimes raped by women. I’ve gotten anguished emails from victims of rape by women thanking me because I am the only blogger they’ve found who will even say they exist. I’ve listened to people– blog readers and friends– talk about bracing themselves when they say the gender of their rapist, because people will laugh at them, or tell them they wanted it, or question them to see if there was some sort of horrible misunderstanding, or immediately derail the conversation to talk about how Men Commit Most Rapes Though, or assume they’re anti-feminist men’s rights activists and call them misogynists, or ask intrusive details about how it could happen mechanically, or assume that they’re the perpetrator and their rapist was the victim. Our society is awful to rape victims of all stripes, but there are unique ways in which it is awful to victims of female perpetrators, and it needs to stop. Pointing out that female rapists and child molesters exist is the first step.

Ray Blanchard Lied To Try To Get A Condition Included In The DSM Out Of Political Correctness

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[content note: rape apologism]

In 2013, Ray Blanchard– head of the paraphilia working group for the DSM-5 and originator of the controversial ‘two-type’ theory of transness— gave an interview about his work as part of the paraphilia working group, which included the following passage:

[Interviewer:] Do you think autoandrophilia, where a woman is aroused by the thought of herself as a man, is a real paraphilia?

[Blanchard:] No, I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism, because there are all these women who want to say, “women can rape too, women can be pedophiles too, women can be exhibitionists too.” It’s a perverse expression of feminism, and so, I thought, let me jump the gun on this. I don’t think the phenomenon even exists.

Quite frankly, I am flabbergasted.

Ray Blanchard openly admitted, in a publicly available interview, to attempting to include a condition that he does not think exists in the DSM. Why? Because feminists might get angry at him if he didn’t.

In the published version of the DSM-5, Transvestic Disorder does not include a “with autoandrophilia” specification; it existed only in the draft version. One hopes that someone read this interview, talked to Blanchard, and explained to him that the DSM should include conditions that exist and should not include conditions that don’t exist. One would hope that that was a fact a psychologist would be aware of once he has his PhD, or gets tenure, or is involved in writing the DSM, or is literally the head of a DSM-related working group. But I suppose we all miss minor details now and again.

Perhaps there should be some sort of training or orientation for people joining a DSM working group. I imagine, ten years from now:

“It is important,” the trainer might say, “that the DSM reflect reality as best it can. Psychologists and psychiatrists will use it to guide their treatment; insurance companies will allow or deny coverage based on it; drug companies will develop medications for the diagnoses we create; journalists and self-help writers will take inclusion in the DSM as a sign that a disorder wasn’t made up by crackpots. Human psychology is messy and it’s hard to create categories that aren’t at least a little bit arbitrary; we’re not expecting perfection, just do your best. A good-faith effort is fine.”

A member of the sleep disorders working group raises her hand. “So, if we’re just supposed to make a good-faith effort, what does this actually rule out?”

“Well, for example,” the trainer says, “if you would describe a phenomenon with the words ‘I don’t think it even exists,’ you should not put it in the DSM.”

“Who would do that?” the head of the depression working group says. “This is absurd. This is worse than the ‘instead of being a Nazi, consider not being a Nazi’ trainings we have to do every time we do research.”

“Yes, well,” the trainer says, “you’d think, but unfortunately Ray Blanchard fucked it all up for everyone. Please turn to page twenty of your booklets for the quiz entitled ‘In What Circumstances Is It Okay To Put A Disorder In The DSM Even Though You Don’t Think It Accurately Describes Reality At All’.”

The room is silent except for the scribbling of pens. A hand is raised.

The trainer sights. “Yes, Ray?”

“I’m stuck on number 12, ‘is it okay to put a disorder in the DSM, even though you don’t think it exists, if a feminist might get mad at you and write a mean article saying you’re wrong?'”

“That’s a no, Ray,” the trainer says.

“But what if it’s a really, really mean article? Like what if they call me a transphobe or something? Surely it’s okay if they might call me a transphobe.”

“We’ll cover that in Unit Four,” the trainer says, “where you learn about the exciting career opportunities available in pitching articles to Quillette.”

Sadly, this vision of the future would not come to be.

In fact, other than having “with autoandrophilia” removed as a specification, Ray Blanchard has faced zero negative consequences for his behavior whatsoever. There was no investigation; he was not censured; he was not removed as the head of the paraphilia working group; his previous research was not reviewed to see whether he has at other times engaged in academic dishonesty in the name of political correctness. This interview appears to have been entirely forgotten.

Indeed, Ray Blanchard has somehow gotten a reputation as a defender of science against political correctness. Presumably this is because his beliefs about transgender people are extraordinarily unpopular among trans advocates and he has faced various negative consequences, such as harsh criticism and Twitter suspension. It is easy to assume that a person facing a lot of criticism for their beliefs is a disinterested scientist following the data where it goes without regard for politics. As a recent example, Helen Joyce, an editor at the Economist, objected to Blanchard’s recent Twitter suspension by calling him “a world expert in the field… setting out his findings from a lifetime of research” and highlighting his work as head of the paraphilia working group.

Certainly, feminists and trans advocates have sometimes made arguments that contradict the best scientific evidence; certainly, it is important to pursue truth even when it goes against what you find politically palatable. But to the best of my knowledge no trans advocate or feminist has ever put a diagnosis into the DSM-5, which they sincerely believed did not exist, for the sake of political gain. Certainly, none of them have done so not because they think it would help people– which would be understandable, although morally wrong and academically dishonest– but because experiencing criticism from feminists is scary and they don’t want to.

That is literally all Ray Blanchard.

Have you considered that if you don’t like being criticized maybe you should be involved in writing the DSM?

Late in the interview, Blanchard says:

But I don’t think we should promulgate untruths for the sake of political agendas, even if they are worthwhile political agendas.

I believe this is excellent advice. Ray Blanchard should consider following it.

Two final notes:

In the interests of being more intellectually honest than Blanchard, I’d like to highlight that Blanchard appears to have changed his mind to some degree about autoandrophilia. He has recently argued that “autohomoeroticism”– a paraphilia in which female people are aroused by the concept of being gay men– may exist, although rarely. However, it is unclear to me whether Blanchard sincerely believes in autohomoeroticism, or merely has figured out that lying in order to keep feminists from yelling at you works better if you don’t openly admit to lying. It seems wise to me to view all his research with distrust.

Second, I have avoided discussing anything other than the object-level issue in this post. Although I am a trans advocate, I hope people of all political persuasions may find Blanchard’s behavior here objectionable; certainly, people who are against trans advocacy have made it very clear that they consider science to be more important than political correctness. I don’t want the conversation to be derailed by other, more controversial topics. Therefore, I have written my other thoughts in a separate post, which will be up on Wednesday.

The Life-Changing Magic Of To Do Lists

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Executive functioning is your ability to engage in goal-directed behavior: it includes self-control, planning, intrinsic motivation, emotional regulation, working memory, and focus. Executive function impairments can really fuck up your entire life.

The good news is that, for many people, non-medication coping mechanisms for executive function impairments work really well. The bad news is that the list of non-medication coping mechanisms for executive function impairments looks something like this:

  • Put your keys in the exact same place every time.
  • Use a to-do list.
  • Use a planner.
  • Write down events in your calendar along with when they occur.
  • Work in a place without distractions.
  • Do pomodoros.
  • Have a morning and afternoon routine.
  • Schedule a specific time to do the thing.

That is, it’s literally all things adults lectured you about when you were a kid and forgot about an important form– again— or didn’t do your homework– again— or can’t find your shoes– again. (Pomodoros are an exception but I feel like they have a certain offputting spiritual similarity.)

It makes sense that that’d be true. Presumably non-medication coping mechanisms for executive dysfunction were independently discovered many times and spread until they became conventional wisdom. Many people have subclinical issues with executive functioning; for genetic reasons, people related to people with serious executive functioning problems are particularly likely to have subclinical issues. They’re trying to  give advice that actually does work.

But it also means that using those coping mechanisms feels like admitting to the people who lectured you as a kid that they were right and actually the problem is that you’re Insufficiently Virtuous and if you only acquired More Virtue then you would be able to solve the problem.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem other than training parents in motivational interviewing, or at least convincing them to give advice at literally any time other than immediately after your child failed to do the thing when they are already full of shame and self-hatred. Seriously, guys. You’re going to give your children lifelong planner-related trauma and they’re going to miss way more doctors’ appointments than they would otherwise.

One problem with non-medication coping mechanisms for executive dysfunction, at least as communicated via parental lecture, is that the things that work for people with moderate to severe executive function issues are usually very very specific. I know several people whose lives literally fell apart when Google shut down Google Inbox,  because they were using those features, and no you can’t just replace it with Gmail Gmail does a different thing. I know a person who can only use Habitica as a to-do list app, because the gamification aspect gives them the internal motivation they would otherwise lack.

I have several times attempted to find One Place Where My Keys And Wallet Live, Such That I Will No Longer Lose Them. However, my first attempts all failed, because I got clever and tried to put my keys and wallet in some place other than the counter next to the front door, which is literally the first flat surface I encounter when I enter the house. If I have to take more than three steps in order to put my keys and wallet in a place, I will not put them there.

People with executive function problems also often have to defend their coping mechanisms with a fervency that seems anal-retentive to people without executive function disorders. For example, many people have to enter a plan into Google Calendar immediately the second they think of it, because if they delay for even five minutes they will never enter it into Google Calendar and they will miss their appointment. Some people have to carry their planners around with them everywhere no matter what, and losing their planner is an emergency of a similar urgency to childbirth. Those who have a routine might have to do exactly the same routine in exactly the same order every day, because if they feed the dog before they drink their tea everything will fall apart and they’ll be in their underwear at 2pm.

(This is another subject on which the parents of children with executive function problems could improve. If your teenager finds something that works for them, things that disrupt it are emergencies and they cannot ‘just do it anyway’. Either prioritize getting them the things they need to handle their executive function problems or don’t lecture them when they forget to do their homework.)

Finally, unless you are very very lucky, non-medication treatments for executive function issues are not going to get you to a neurotypical level of functioning. This is often a grave disappointment to people with executive function problems and their loved ones; what’s the use of all that work if you’re just going to miss appointments and fail to run errands anyway? The answer is that successfully running nine out of ten errands is actually way better than successfully running two out of ten errands. It’s a tremendous improvement in your quality of life and your ability to do things, even if a normal person would be able to do all ten errands. It’s important to compare yourself to where you used to be, not to where other people are right now.

Consider Switching Productivity Systems Often

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A lot of people decide to look for the best possible productivity system, which they’ll use for the rest of their lives. However, I think for many people it’s better to switch between several different productivity systems.

For me, a new productivity system– Habitica, Getting Things Done, Zen to One, Complice, a brand new planner– is shiny and exciting. I am motivated to check it every day. I am convinced that this time the system will solve all of my executive function problems. I will remember my appointments! I will check tasks off my to-do list! I will accomplish my goals! I will become a productive adult member of society!

Unfortunately, over time, the new productivity system grows stale. I’m used to it; I don’t get the rewards of novelty. I am familiar with all its quirks and don’t have any exciting new features to discover. It has, in a completely unpredictable turn of events, failed to solve all of my life problems.

What’s worse, I’ve fallen into a certain automatic routine for using my system. Switching to a new productivity system is often an opportunity to reflect on how I’ve been doing things poorly and in what ways I can do things better. Should I add ‘dishes’ as a daily task because I keep running out of plates? Do I really want to write a novel, or is it just on my to-do list because I feel like the sort of person who should be writing a novel? Should I consolidate these twelve different things I need to do every morning into a single ‘morning routine’ item?

But if I’ve been using the same productivity system for a year, I haven’t had an opportunity to reflect for a long time, and the list has gotten worse. I walk around in shoes with holes in them for the past three months because it never occurred to me that I should add ‘buy shoes’ to my list. The book I’ve been meaning to read for six months is still on my to do list even though I am pretty sure I am never going to get around to reading it. There are mysterious items labeled things like ‘investigate point B’. I follow the same routines even though they’re often now uncomfortable fits for my life.

(I am informed that high-level productivity system users do things called “weekly reviews” and “monthly reviews” to prevent this problem. This has literally never worked for me.)

In the past, I used to respond to this by redoubling my efforts to make the old productivity system work and recapture the magic. Right now, I take this as a sign to switch productivity systems. 

In fact, I explicitly accept and plan for the fact that I’m going to switch productivity systems every year to eighteen months.

The part of my brain that decides that THIS productivity system is going to FIX MY ENTIRE LIFE is really dumb and incapable of learning from experience. I feel excited about the new system I’m switching to, and I can harness that to build good habits and create positive feedback cycles. I take switching as an opportunity to reflect on my goals and tasks and see if they make sense. And– since I know that switching regularly is something I plan on doing– I can switch back to old systems that I know worked well for me. (No, that doesn’t stop my brain from believing it is going to fix my entire life. My brain is really dumb.)

I think this advice might work well for some other people who work similarly to me.