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The Basic Problem is They Don’t Respect Our Agency

Whether it’s when we’re demanding our right to control our own bodies and fertility, including full abortion rights, or we’re asking those who proclaim themselves our allies to recognize how important it is they always recognize our rights, autonomy and agency without debate, it’s become clear that the problem we face is on a basic level, they don’t recognize that we are the sole owners of our bodies, our time, our energy and our feelings.

Now, those who claim they’re our allies and offer the most insipid & milquetoast kind of pro-choice attitudes insist they’re not like those bad people who’d force us to give birth against our will. They respect us and our choices. But must we always be so adversarial about it? So dogmatic? What’s so horrible about allowing debate or other viewpoints about abortion? It’s not as clear cut a secular advocacy issue as equal marriage rights, after all.

BULLSHIT.

Because every time they tell us we have to support and endorse movements that include and welcome those that devalue us, they are telling us we have to defend our most basic rights of self over and over again. It means that our supposed allies don’t respect our rights to own our time.

They are displaying the same toxic underlying male privilege assumptions they claim to denounce. They are saying with their actions that they do feel they or others are entitled to our time. And that our justifiably angry response to that imposition is wrong.

Let me be clear if you do not consistently support or respect the basic bodily rights and autonomy of people who can become pregnant, I don’t care if you are nominally pro-choice. You may think standard medical care like abortion care should be legal, but you haven’t shown you any respect for my agency. You have shown what you truly think is important, and it is you and your comfort above me and my actual life.

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Sextravagana! Not Letting Religion Rule Secular Sexual Ethics

Over the weekend, Thrack and I attended the wonderful “mini-con” Sextravaganza put on by the local Secular Student Alliance affilitate, Secular Humanism Inquiry and Freethought (SHIFT) at the University of Utah. It was awesome and I’m glad we went. I do wish there had been more people there, but as Greta Christina put it, it was competing with the “biggest football game in all human history.” (Rivalry between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University is too deep to be ignored here.)

SHIFT logo

For an event that was expected by religious conservatives to be somewhere between vile orgy and pushing “erotic whimsys,” I fear that permanently offended religious people seeking shocked titillation, Sextravaganza would have been a terrible disappointment to them. I’m almost sad that no such huffy people showed up to protest or express their displeasure. But I suspect deep down they feared learning something too much to come and glare at us all disapprovingly. And there was so much they could have learned.

Of the three speakers at Sextravaganza, I had only heard of one. In fact, if I wasn’t already such a big fan of Greta Christina, I might have missed this event altogether and that would have been a shame.

As SHIFT and other SSA affiliate groups handed out the programs, the first thing that Thrack noted and pointed out to me is that organizers took the time to put a clear and simple harassment policy where everyone would see it right on the back. After the months and months of willfully ignorant shitstorm surrounding the simple request that atheist cons take sexual harassment seriously, it was refreshing and delightful to see the issue handled easily with no fuss. Contrast that with the adversarial and secretive approach at this year’s TAM when victims were surveilled without their consent following any problem. It’s wonderful to show that even for a small event with three speakers and a panel discussion, people can to do it right:

Sexual Harassment Policy, See, wasn't that easy?

What’s more it was wonderful to see that women’s voices were not only considered but valued; you could tell by the panel composition (two women one man) and the fact that the audience had slightly more women than men. The whole purpose was to give a contrasting secular view to sexual ethics and you couldn’t differentiate yourself more clearly in a year when an all-male panel of (partially-celibate) religious leaders was considered experts by congressional leadership.

Dr. Lisa Diamond

The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Diamond, is a professor of psychology here at the University of Utah (in Utah, it’s usually just referred to as “The U” as if there were only one). Dr. Diamond specializes in sexuality and relationship development in adolescents.  Her book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (which Thrack bought at the event) followed women over ten years from adolescence to adulthood to study how sexual identity and relationships develop. As a speaker, Diamond was funny, and jovially self-deprecating as she recognized that she was much newer to the discussion than her fellow speakers. And although she acknowledged she is a non-believer, her focus was far less explicitly atheistic.

“I do want to slowly poison and destroy the marriage institution.”

Instead, Diamond wanted to talk about how we have allowed conservative religious ideals about relationships and families to dominate how we present our case for equal rights for same-sex couples. She argues, quite rightly, that by presenting a clean and conservative looking gay couple with kids as the public face, we are buying into the idea that certain types of people and relationships are worthy of protection. Now it’s a strategy that is working and has parallels with other movements, but it has some troubling implications for the long-term because it excludes and marginalizes members of the queer community by default.

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Thank You, Stephanie and Jen

Fighting sexist bullshit, particularly when you’re discussing entrenched aspects in culture and organization is beyond exhausting.  But while it makes it so much more satisfying when you see that getting the ball rolling toward conversation and change produces real tangible results.

I am so proud of Stephanie Zvan and Jen McCreight right now.  I am grateful for their words, actions and seemingly tireless advocacy.  Seriously guys, you rock.

Lenore Skenazy Could Be A Skeptic, But She’s Not

Free Range Parenting, It’s almost skeptical.

For a long time now, I’ve really wanted to like Lenore Skenazy.  She dares to speak up against the ridiculous and crippling bubble wrap we put around kids growing up and point out that we should be basing our decisions about risk/benefit to kids based on the actual evidence.  Skenazy pointed out that crime rates are at historic lows nationally and in individual states, and yet the policies that govern parenting, play and schooling have gotten ever more restrictive.  There are social norms at work, although they vary by region, that ostracize parents who allow their children opportunities to learn and grow independently while building confidence and useful skills.

She calls it “Free-Range Parenting.”  Sounds like a good start toward a skeptical worldview, right?  Turns out, not so much.

Then the problems start to show up.

Along with the evidence based ideas of letting kids play outside without adults hovering a foot away and allowing mature kids to ride on public transportation to see friends or hit the library and not immediately characterizing men near children as probable pedophiles, she also comes off as a denialist about things we do have evidence of risk and harm.  I would not have known the extend to which she endorses some of these things had I not followed her on Twitter for a while.

I had a bit of a ragegasm in January when she seemed to side with a systemic anti-medication approach to ADHD that made my life misery as a kid.  She linked to a poorly done bit of research on exercise for kids with ADHD credulously agreeing with the overstated conclusions, saying it was “unsurprising but significant.”  I feared for all the parents who followed her seeing this and deciding that their kids don’t need medical treatment or coping strategies after all, they just need to run around a bit more during the day.  I feared they could face non-treatment (which is fucking hell) because of the I-heard-about-this-alternative-treatment-on-Oprah effect.

Since then, it appears that she has made her healthy and positive stance toward medicating those with ADHD more clear, which I appreciate.  However, she seems to think that since the rash of known bullying related suicides doesn’t match an overall decrease among most students (meaning it doesn’t affect lots of straight and cis kids, in my opinion), there is no epidemic of systemic abuses.  She seems to say that bullying is sad but normal and decreasing, so we shouldn’t look to see if there are greater influences of bullying, even anti-gay bullying, as the nation becomes more conservative and polarized about LGBT equality.

She claims that “No one is shrugging off the real crime of bullying. But to pretend there’s an epidemic when in fact things are getting better is to both over-react AND sell our kids short.”  Has she even looked at what places like Tennessee legislature or the Anoka-Hennepin school district have said and done on the matter?  If Skenazy had been paying attention at all, she should know that religious conservatives are lobbying for the right to verbally crush LGBT youth all in the name of religious freedom.  Some conservatives have even argued that bullying kids abusing LGBT students are displaying natural revulsion, rather than ingrained prejudice.  Is this really the argument she believes is supported by evidence?

But for a while, I continued following her because she generally has sane things to say about kids being allowed to be kids and parents not being perfect.  Then she did something that I think is unforgivable.  She claimed the recent CDC rape and sexual violence survey was an example of “overdefining” crime while linking to some of the most hateful straw analysis of the survey I have seen.

Lenore Skenazy Tweet Endorsing Rape Apologist Article

I think I understand why she did it.  Skenazy has long argued that our sex-offender laws are screwed up, and punish teenagers and adolescents for bad judgement.  And that much is true; it is one thing for someone to be convicted of statutory rape when xe is old enough that the power differential is inherently harmful.  It is another when a couple of years separate boyfriend/girlfriend and the elder spends the rest of xir days labeled on a registry, having future life options eliminated without good cause.

Why I No Longer Trust Lenore Skenazy.

But what Skenazy has done is conflate these Romeo & Juliet scenarios with the real and statistically huge risk of rape and sexual assault that women face and spit on victims.  By endorsing the views of someone actively trying to undermine more comprehensive study of sexual violence, she has become a rape apologist.  It was at this point I could no longer follow her or endorse her advocacy because it’s tainted by someone who interprets facts to suit her hypotheses.  Consent is really not that hard (no matter how “where is the line/I’m just asking questions” assholes try to muddle the issue).  Skenazy is talking about instances of free and enthusiastic consent without inherently broken power dynamics, and then endorses the most vile denial and rape apologism without even thinking.  That she could not see the difference means that I can no longer trust anything she says to be objectively measured.

So you can understand why I am so angry, I’ll talk about both the article she endorsed How to fake sexual violence rates and produce scary numbers and the CDC survey it references.  I’ll start by talking a little bit about the CDC violence study, but honestly, it has been parsed and discussed in so much depth that it’s mostly just so I can explain just how wrong the opinion piece is.

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The Ocampa Would Be Extinct

I started watching Star Trek Voyager on Netflix streaming.  If you don’t like the series, fine, but I admit I’ve always kind of liked it.

But there’s a problem.  I didn’t notice it when the episodes first aired, but now that I’ve seen it I can’t un-see it.  There is no way that the Ocampa could exist as a species, they would be extinct.  And it has nothing to do with a short lifespan, that doesn’t matter in any event.  It is clearly stated that their species is capable of only having one pregnancy (which produces only one offspring) in a lifetime.  That’s not even replacement birth rate.

I can suspend my disbelief for all kinds of shit in a science fiction show.  But this seriously damaged my enjoyment of the show.  (It’s science fiction after all.)

Moar Science Plz

Physical activity program leads to better behavior for children with ADHD

This is kind of headline I’m used to seeing when people talk about press about studies of children with ADHD.  There is so much populist pushback against the idea of medicating of children with drugs like Ritalin (or in my case, dexedrine) that it seems you can’t swing a dead cat without coming across the idea that there is some easier non-pharmacological way to improve outcomes.  And then when I look closer, I find that the glowing ideas are somewhat dubious when you look at the actual procedures behind the headlines.  This one is no exception.

When I came across this study, the person promoting it trumpeted it as “no surprise” since everybody knows that the whole problem with ADHD kids is that they can’t sit still and focus, right?  You know what, fuck you.  You’re part of the problem that led to years and years of my misery going undiagnosed (ignorance, confusion and stigma) and untreated (ZOMG, don’t give kids drugs that clearly help them).  But before we get to that, let’s look at the particulars.

  • The study did not include children without ADHD to provide a contrast of neurotypical students (Because this will undoubtedly lead to replacement of other treatment modalities, rather than addition in most cases, you must contrast results of ADHD children with neurotypical children to get some idea of effectiveness as a coping strategy.)
  • They studied exactly ten children and eleven as a control, quite a small sample size (Do I even need to point out why a tiny sample size is problematic in scientific research?)
  • The control group is not particularly well controlled for environmental variables as they were recruited from numerous other schools while the experimental students all attended the same school (Because the results being measured are of a fuzzy social/behavioral aspect, controlling for variables in teaching and environment is key)
  • Girls with ADHD were not well represented in this study, 1 per group (Women are underresearched in medicine to begin with, but I can tell you that as a girl with ADHD, I was basically invisible.  Girls are often underdiagnosed in ADHD, although I hope it’s improved from my childhood, and ignoring their response to treatment modalities as unimportant during behavioral research will continue to produce studies that may not be useful for treating female children and adolescents.)
  • The control group were all taking medication while only 30% of the experimental population was on medication to manage their symptoms (I took dextroamphetamines to treat my ADHD and while it was almost miraculously helpful, it is not without physical effects.  I was terribly underweight at times and remember having to force myself to eat when I wasn’t hungry.   I also had to take medication that aided in sleep since I was taking powerful stimulants.  Given that this treatment is physical and measures changes in fitness/strength/motor skills, medical side effects that could include reduced appetite and weight loss should not be ignored.  Moreover, this is one of many ways in which variables in the study were ignored rather than controlled; comparison between these two groups can’t discount medication as a difference.)
  • Two of the three types of ADHD were represented in the study (Hyperactive-impulsive, and combined); those with inattentive type were described as “not included in the theoretical model of ADHD” (I have a couple of problems with this. For one, it is another variable that’s not well controlled for in the experiment.  For another, this is simply excluding a whole population of those who meet the diagnosis criteria for ADHD as unimportant while attempting to make generalized statements about improvements in children with ADHD without qualification.)
  • Initial evaluations prior to the physical activity program were done with children explicitly not taking their medication, although they were allowed to be on medication during the experiment (Testing conditions prior to the experiment should be the same as those used during and afterward.  Duh.)
  • Behavioral results were tracked by parents and teachers using Achenbach’s Child Behavior Checklist; no self-evaluation or independent evaluation was used (Even during the ages referenced, I was a fairly secretive child and tended to hide depressive symptoms and problems with my homework/other tasks out of frustration and shame.  Without any input from the children themselves, we have no way of being sure of many internal behavioral issues that are being evaluated by parents and teachers.  Moreover, much like the sugar/hyperactivity studies in children, we have a huge problem of confirmation bias where teachers and parents expecting to see change will believe they observe change.)
  • No way to blind the observers involved for control/experimental groups (Again, confirmation bias)
  • Previous evaluation showed the control group had a higher incidence of withdrawn/depressed behavior prior to program and evaluation (Still more methodological problems in getting comparable data between research groups.) 
  • [Personal Note: No attempts are made regarding statistical analysis of task completion such as homework.  It would not have been difficult to track any change in ability to finish and turn in homework as a hard statistical evaluator of task-related behavior improvement.]
  • Study itself acknowledges flaws within both design and recruitment render the positive results reported more or less useless (They try to spin it positively, claiming that the pointless results are “exploratory” and really means that more study should be done on the subject, hopefully more well designed.  I’m not against this kind of research per se, but I do think that it any positive results need to be cautiously described lest they lead more children to go without treatment like I did for much of my childhood.  No one should have to suffer through that frustration, shame and pain.)

So the rosy headline that physical activity improves outcomes for children with ADHD is basically a lie.  The researchers very clearly state that their data collection and other structural flaws cast doubt on the results.  It’s not entirely the fault of the researchers as medical science reporting is notoriously bad.  Not only can reporters and bloggers often not tell good science from bad, they overstate and exaggerate conclusions until they are sometimes unrecognizable.

So I want more science and I want good science and I want good science reporting.  Is that so much to ask?

Missionary Tactics

Over the New Year holiday weekend, I ran into some roving neighborhood Mormon missionaries.  Even though they were the Spanish language missionaries for the area, when the asked if we were members of their church, they took perhaps 20-25 minutes to talk to me in the front yard because I told them openly and unapologetically that I was an atheist.  They were trying to see if they could send more dedicated proselytizers and I was seeing if the tactics of Mormon missionaries had changed much since I last talked to some (plus my more devout Mormon family who have served missions).

I really wanted to see what sort of arguments I would encounter this time, and perhaps I should feel bad that I basically saw it as an anthropological study opportunity, but I don’t.  From the encounter I got the following highlights:

When dealing with family members who have tried to push me toward Mormonism, I find I used to get much more irritated.  I didn’t bring up my faith, so what fucking business was it of theirs?  I certainly wasn’t trying to convert them.  I’m little less defensive now, but it hasn’t come up for quite a while, so that helps as well.  In general, I try to not to push my ideas about religion, but I will respond honestly when they bring it up.  I will get more than little angry when you start to use religious belief to justify government and school policies because you don’t have the right to impose religious belief; I will argue for secularism.  But when your purpose is eventual conversion?  All bets are off.

I won’t be nice and say that your explanation of the world is good or rational because I can’t agree that it is.  To me, religious belief is not a sacred thing the should be protected from criticism, but is simply another idea attempting to explain reality.  So I will call you out when you use poor logic or circular reasoning to try to convince me that your explanation about reality is the right one.

They seemed eventually to become resigned to the idea that sending missionaries would be futile, thankfully.  But I kind of feel bad when I outmaneuver missionaries that are all fresh and dewy eyed.  Who isn’t a bit of an idiot at 19, after all?

*Followup from Pascal’s Wager.  “If I was to pray to a personal god, which one would I pray to?” “God, of course.” “Right, but not everyone believes in your god, or even in just one.” Stunned reaction and subject change.

** It is apparently really surprising to be told that since I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in magic, or the supernatural or souls.  We are meatsacks and that is a horrifying thought, it seems.