Game Changer: A Memoir of Disruptive Love: A memoir by Franklin Veaux, author of More than Two, about his marriage to an obligate monogamous person while being obligate poly. If you are like “wow, that seems like an incredibly horrible idea,” you are far more sensible than anyone in this book, who universally seem to be under the impression that this situation can be managed by coming up with a bunch of rules about Franklin’s dates with other people. (No “I love you”s! No sleeping in their bed! His wife for years gives him, a grown man, a curfew.) Naturally this entire situation is very painful for Franklin, his wife, and all of Franklin’s other partners. Somehow this relationship, which in any sensible world would have ended after the third date, managed to stay together for eighteen years. Eighteen years! That is definitely an impressive feat of endurance if nothing else.
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide To Caring for Self While Caring for Others: I really wanted to like this book. I think the concept of “trauma stewardship” is really interesting and important: the author reframes trauma exposure responses (the mental health consequences often faced by people who help others– whether people or animals– cope with highly traumatic situations) as trauma stewardship, the entire conversation about how we come to do the work, how we’re affected by it, and how we make sense of it. I think it’s a really interesting move to understand helpers’ relationship to trauma as stewardship, as taking a valuable thing which has been entrusted to us and which we have responsibility for but which ultimately does not belong to us. Unfortunately, I have a limited tolerance for woo, and after the sixth or seventh comment about the wisdom of Native Americans I checked out. So it did not really live up to its potential from my perspective.
The Myth of Sex Addiction: I really, really wanted to like this book. And to be fair some of its arguments are effective. Probably the most effective argument in the book is a case study of a college student and evangelical Christian who identified as a sex addict because he felt like he couldn’t control his masturbation no matter what he did and it was causing him serious distress. He masturbated twice a month. That, I think, is the best argument I’ve ever heard that some cases of sex addiction are best treated with sex positivity and destigmatization, not attempting to get the patient to reduce their masturbation to zero times a month.
I also find it plausible that the diagnosis of sex addiction is, as it were, gynecentric. That is, “sex addiction” doesn’t just pathologize unusual but harmless behavior such as BDSM; it pathologizes behavior that, for whatever cultural or biological reason, is far more common in men than in women (a desire for anonymous sex, enjoying sex outside of a relationship context, seeing sex workers, daily masturbation to pornography).
Unfortunately, The Myth of Sex Addiction itself has an addiction to gee-whiz clickbait-headline thirty-undergraduates-from-an-Intro-Psych-class this-is-never-going-to-replicate psychology studies. It tells us that these studies are Just How Men Are, because of Biology and Evolution, without ever doing any sort of cross-cultural analysis or acknowledging that its sample is WEIRD. It repeatedly cites the SurveyFail guy, who years later has still not managed to work out that women don’t jerk off to fade-to-black romance novels.
The Myth of Sex Addiction very confidently claims that women don’t have fetishes. I think this is a bizarrely confident claim to make after you’ve spent five pages mustering the evidence that women are less likely to masturbate and to approve of porn and non-PIV sex. Maybe they do have fetishes and they just have no idea? Also, the definition of fetish is actually androcentric. My research suggests that men don’t have fetishes, because while it is very common for women to dream of being ravished by a cowboy, almost no men dream of being ravished by a cowgirl. In fact, the entire genre of cowgirl-ravishment books appears to be aimed at lesbians.
As always when I read books about mental illness that don’t come from a social-model perspective, I think the social model would make this guy’s life so much easier. Yes, it is possible for the same mental trait to be an illness if it causes you distress or difficulty functioning, and a quirk if it doesn’t. The fact that I don’t experience any negative consequences from my hypersexuality doesn’t mean anything one way or the other about whether it’s a mental illness; it just means that my environment accommodates me.
Utopia for Realists: I am honestly pretty surprised by this book, because I didn’t expect anyone to be so slavish in following Silicon Valley political orthodoxy. Guaranteed basic income, shorter work weeks, randomistas in foreign aid, open borders… it honestly surprised me that there wasn’t a chapter on fixing the housing crisis by building more houses. Anyway, it was all pretty boring for me, because I live here and am already familiar with the arguments for and against a guaranteed basic income and open borders, but if you are curious what Your New Tech Overlords think about things there are really far worse books you can read.
The Joy of Gay Sex: A evocation of gay male life circa 2009 cleverly disguised as a sex advice book. The sex advice itself is mostly not very interesting, assuming you have some idea of the mechanics of anal sex. The little essays about HIV, chosen families, monogamy, and all the other details of gay life build up a rich tapestry that really helps you intuitively understand what it’s like to be a (certain kind of) gay man. The sections on the Internet were particularly interesting to me, because they were written pre-Grindr; the gay Internet as described in the book is both recognizable and distinctly less convenient than the present Internet. My one complaint is the underrepresentation of the gay and bisexual men of my acquaintance (where are the furries? where are the anime nerds?) but I suppose that they don’t really hang out at gay bars so perhaps the author never had a chance to meet them.
Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche: I am leery of giving a positive review of this book, because it is written by a journalist, and it is very possible the author is misunderstanding all the research because he doesn’t have a background in the field. Perhaps Scott Alexander or Sarah Constantin or someone could fact-check it for me.
Until it is fact-checked by someone I trust on psychiatry, my tentative opinion is that this book is very plausible. Essentially, the thesis is that certain things (trauma, mental distress, psychosis) are universal, but we tend to express symptoms of those things depending on what’s floating in the cultural “symptom pool.” A psychotic person who grows up in America will think the CIA is mind-controlling them; a psychotic person who grows up in a developing country will think demons are talking to them. A person in severe emotional distress in the United States may be anorexic or self-harm; a person in severe emotional distress in Indonesia may commit a mass assault. (Caveats: it does occasionally happen that people pick up symptoms that aren’t usual for their culture; anorexia is probably not caused by the “thin ideal”, and in fact one of the strongest pieces of evidence for anorexia as a culture-bound syndrome is the existence of societies with a thin ideal and very very low rate of anorexia.) When a syndrome only exists in another culture, it is called a “culture-bound syndrome.” When a syndrome only exists in the Anglosphere, it is called “how people work.” Because the DSM is seen as authoritative, we export our local symptom pool around the world.
I am personally interested in the prospect of cultivating the symptom pool to reduce distress in mentally ill people. Through careful messaging, could we remove harmful symptoms like anorexia, somatization which results in chronic pain, and running amok and replace them with less harmful expressions of distress like snapping a rubber band against your wrist or cutting off your hair? I imagine how much future schizophrenics could be helped by a hundred million dollars directed towards PSAs about people who have a positive relationship with their voices and representation of people with nice voices in popular culture. Sadly, the book does not explore this concept.
The last chapter was annoying. While it established that pharmaceutical companies increased the rate of antidepressant prescription in Japan by raising awareness of depression, it did not provide any evidence that this actually increased the rate of emotional distress in Japan. Would one assume from the Viagra marketing campaign that before Viagra no one had ever had erectile dysfunction?
Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People: I agree with the main thesis of this book: I think that sexism, homophobia, and other oppression-related cognitive biases affect how we interpret biological data and lead to inaccurate conclusions. I appreciated Joan Roughgarden pointing out that commonly used terms like “female mimic” and “cuckoldry” can lead scientists to assume one explanation has to be true (that the animal is pretending to be female, that the female is passing off offspring from an extra-pair copulation as the male’s) when they haven’t collected the data to justify the assumption.
Some of her criticisms seem quite valid to me. For example, it does seem implausible that if humans can tell apart with the naked eye females and female mimic males of a species with sharp eyesight, then the male (who has an evolutionary reason to be good at telling these things apart) does not. Perhaps the female mimic male assists the male somehow: helping him defend his territory or allowing him to signal that he won’t attack the female. It also seems implausible that male seabirds never notice extra-pair copulations occurring in public, and thus we should look for alternate explanations in which the female having extra-pair copulations improves the male’s reproductive success somehow. Maybe extra-pair copulations reduce the risk of another male committing infanticide if the female’s partner dies.
However, I think Roughgarden has a bad habit of presenting her interpretations as settled science, when in reality they’re just interpretations. We would have to do a lot more detailed ecological work to decide whether her conclusions are accurate. And every time she says “this interpretation has an unfortunate oppressive implication” as an argument against a particular interpretation of the data, I want to cringe. That is not what science is supposed to do. You can’t decide the truth by saying what’s most convenient to your ideology.
Roughgarden writes mostly about the potential adaptive benefits of genetic diversity in humans, which makes me really curious about her opinions about the adaptive benefits of neurodiversity in humans. I agree with her hypothesis that many genetic impairments would not be as common as they are if the genes didn’t pose some fitness benefit, the way that people who are heterozygous for sickle-cell anemia genes are protected against malaria. However, she once again fails to consider alternate hypotheses. Many genetic impairments, for example, are very common in Ashkenazi Jews, who have a relatively small effective population size and thus are particularly susceptible to genetic drift. There is no reason to suppose that those impairments have an adaptive benefit.
[this review talks about rape]
Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All: Probably my least favorite of Jaclyn Friedman’s books so far. I mean, anticapitalism aside, she’s right about everything. Reproductive justice does need to include not just the right to contraception and abortion but the right to start a family, have adequate perinatal care, and not be shackled to the bed while giving birth. Sex work stigma does harm women who aren’t sex workers and combating it is a vital part of sex-positive activism. The de facto legalization of rape of Native American women on reservations is horrifying. While level of vaginal arousal is completely uncorrelated with level of self-reported arousal, reporting this as “women don’t know what they want, are all secretly bisexuals who like fucking bonobos” both is sexist and misrepresents the science. While there are personal decisions that affect sex-negative cisheteropatriarcy, like volunteering for a rape crisis center or choosing not to be an asshole to people whose sex lives you disapprove of, whether or not you flash their boobs and say “wooooo!” is not one of them, either on a “this is empowering!” or a “this is objectifying!” level.
I continue to highly recommend Yes Means Yes, and maybe if any of those statements is surprising to you consider checking out Unscrewed.
I was very annoyed at the chapter on masculinity. Jaclyn Friedman is, in fact, a decent person who comes to the correct conclusion that male gender norms both hurt men and cause men to hurt others and that both aspects should be recognized. But goddamn does she feel like she needs to signal that she is still a Woke Feminist who engages in Fashionable Misandry. Is it really necessary to make fun of men who internalize oppositionally sexist norms to the point that they can’t buy female-branded products? Do you have to put in that paragraph about how the harm male gender roles cause to women ought to be enough to get men to be feminists, but okay if we have to we can talk about the harm it causes to men? Notably, Friedman does not do that in the chapter on how sex work stigma hurts non-sex-workers, which I can’t help but figure is related to the fact that Friedman is a woman and is not a sex worker.
[the next book is about dieting]
Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight: I realize that no one knows why weight set points are going up, but I wish there had been more discussion of various hypotheses. Instead, the author basically goes with “dieting causes weight set points to rise!”, which is one plausible hypothesis but also seems really convenient for the book about how you should stop dieting.
The advice for practicing Health at Every Size is as follows:
- Stop hating yourself and your body. Find supportive people who won’t talk about how you need to lose weight. Practice reframing your negative thoughts about your body, food, and exercise.
- Eat delicious food. Pay attention when you eat. Eat when hungry; stop when full. If you find yourself eating to manage an emotion, use a different self-care technique while practicing self-compassion (it is perfectly natural to use food to manage your emotions if you don’t have another way to do so).
- Integrate movement into your daily life. Eat a variety of food, mostly plants, almost all unprocessed food, 100% food you enjoy. Get enough sleep. Manage your stress.
- If you have a hard time with the food advice in #3: learn to cook, check out community-supported agriculture programs, eat in a peaceful and loving environment, slow down, and pay attention to presentation.