Burdensome

Billy needed to be needed, but Suzie didn’t have a need.
They battled out their conflicts over gender-bent greed.
Suzie had a job and a desire to feel love,
Billy felt it burdensome to not be burdened of.

And so this confusing battle, it raged throughout the years,
A romantic comedy, of sorts, damaging these gender-divided peers.
Billy’s needs were met so that Suzie’s also seemed to be his own,
And her need for control of herself was Billy’s Sisyphus stone.

Needs are not universal, though, and Suzie and Billy need different things,
So Billy assumed what Suzie needed were houses and children and rings.
Suzie wanted fulfillment, she wanted entertainment and freedom.
And Billy cast off all her desires, saying, “but you don’t really NEED them.”

It’s a problem with their social roadmap; with what they’re expected to be,
While Billy’s needs are not invalid, they ignore Suzie’s autonomy.
Attention should be given to their resolution because it might apply to you:
Billy had to learn independence so Suzie could have hers, too.

-Sophie M. Hirschfeld

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I am not a scientist. I also do not have testicles. However, if I had testicles, I would give my left testicle to be a scientist. I haven’t given up on science, though. I am a die-hard science nerd. I also happen to be very happy to be the owner of a nice, shiny, highly functional vagina. I am a girl in a world that many still see as a man’s world. It has been a long and difficult journey, for women, to become able to exercise their rights the way men have for centuries. Our gender worked hard to get here, and there is still, very clearly, more work to be done to obtain equality. At the Science Online 2011 conference, one of the topics of discussion was in regards to women in the science blogging community. Scicurious and Miriam had some things to say about it. Since I think it is important to discuss these things, I felt the need to respond.

I’m going to respond as I go through their post. I respect both women (scicurious is one of my favorite people on twitter) and trust that people will take each position on its own merit.

Miriam: So here’s what I’ve been thinking during this very very earnest discussion on women science bloggers. We have a fundamental conflict between selling science & including women. Everything in our society is sold with female bodies. Just check out the blog Sociological Images. Everything from household items to soap to apples. Everything.

While I think discussion about women science bloggers and how to sell them is an important topic of conversation, I also think it is important to note that I don’t think everything is sold with female bodies. At least, not in a sexual way. 50% of the population happens to be women, so it would be difficult to find a product that doesn’t have advertising that includes a woman, somehow. But, sexual imagery with a woman is not something that is always seen in advertising. It is there often, but not everything is sold that way. Some examples:

  • Hemorrhoid Cream
  • Hungry, Hungry Hippo (the children’s game)
  • Tongue Depressors
  • Krylon Indoor/Outdoor spray paint

Even if it were the case that everything was sold using sexualized images of women, that seems pretty irrelevant if we’re really trying to question if it is appropriate to do so. As we know from history, just because everybody does it doesn’t mean it is a good or bad trend to follow.

Miriam: So tapping into this to sell science is very effective. It totally works. Scicurious: But it utilizes a framework that involves the objectification of women’s bodies to the detriment of women, who continue to be objectified and thus get judged not on what they do, but on how they look. What a man says on blogs is usually (not always) disconnected from his looks, while a female face on a blog tends to be associated with whatever she writes, and the quality of what she writes is influenced by the way that she looks.

It doesn’t necessarily work, actually. It can work, sometimes, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, context is important. Sex is only a good advertising strategy if the advertisement is in the right context. Otherwise, it is ineffective. Also, as a person who has to strike a balance between being a sexual image and contributing intelligently to the world around her, I don’t really think that how a woman looks really has to play a huge role in how people value her as a writer and academian. While many of my readers may find me attractive, I’ve yet to encounter a single person saying something sexually inappropriate in reaction to anything I’ve posted on shethought. In fact, I suspect that most of those readers don’t even know what I look like, or what many of my peers on there look like. I agree that having a vagina does affect how a blog is received by readers.  In fact, I think what I wrote in 2009 , when Sheril Kirshenbaum had to deal with the problem, is still very relevant, today. Owning a vagina and being a writer means that we sometimes have to deal with some tactless hounds. I don’t think that problem is necessarily something that should be a deciding factor on if something or someone in the scientific community uses a sexual theme to market themselves. Marketing something a certain way does not mean that the marketing theme has to be something that the product always conforms to. Just because fruit of the loom, for example, used commercials with men dressed up as apples and grapes does not mean that men who wear underwear must then dress up as apples and grapes. Likewise, if the Science Cheerleader uses  cheer leading as a theme in how she advertises science, that does not mean that everyone in the science community must suddenly be a cheerleader, nor does it mean that is what the world will expect.

Scicurious: Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say “You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly”? There’s another little issue in there, I think. The fact that, when you get complimented, it is somehow more OK than if you get harassed for being ugly. People seem to feel more sympathy for those who are harassed for being pretty.

I actually think this needs more attention, but, as stated, nobody wants to highlight that they’ve been called ugly. Well, except me. I’ve complained about that behavior, before. You know what happens when you come out to a wide audience and say, “hey, so and so says I’m ugly?” Well, you find all the people who think you’re not ugly. I don’t think the problem is that people stop feeling sorry for those who are made fun of because someone thinks they’re ugly, I think the people who receive that kind of criticism either don’t mention it (because they don’t want to repeat something like that) or, they mention it and are quickly told that the person who harassed them is a loser and wrong. There’s an interesting side problem to this, though. For those who are told that they are ugly, I’ve noticed that it is sometimes difficult for their readers or peers to correct that problem because it is also considered inappropriate for a reader to say that they are attractive. As a result, there’s this odd hazy area when it comes to appropriate behavior. So, as a side question, is it appropriate for people to tell someone they’re attractive if you’re trying to help them recover from someone else’s bad behavior?

Miriam: And some women – who perhaps are a little younger – do think it’s a compliment. At first. But I think the true nature of those type of compliments becomes clear – and it comes back to using the female body to sell everything.

I think that the problem isn’t that one person thinks something is a compliment and another does not. Instead, I think that this is a problem because of context. Much like the aforementioned issue with Sheril, and the problem I wrote about on shethought, here. There are times when a compliment is appropriate and there are times when it is not. Also, there is a problem when it comes to who will welcome a compliment and who will not. If someone compliments me, I often welcome it, but it depends on the context, as well. I’m going to quote myself, here, because I think it is relevant:

This is a whole other issue, entirely. Sometimes, I care what people think about my appearance, sometimes I don’t. I like a variety of compliments and that includes compliments about my appearance, about my intelligence, about my skills. Would it still have been a problem if this person complimented her on something else? What if he complimented a book she was holding, a sticker on her car or her taste in coffee? Would that still be offensive? When we get a compliment that we don’t want, why don’t we treat it like we do input about other things that we don’t want? You know, like when you go through the checkout at the store and the clerk mentions that they’re raising money for the elite baby vampire robot olympics and would you like to donate? Unless we have a special interest in elite baby vampire robots, we’re likely to just pass that one over and the incident is forgotten as quickly as it happened. The clerk is free to mention it and we are free to dismiss it. It doesn’t matter if the clerk thinks that we care about it. This is one of those situations where it is our own reaction that matters, not that someone else did something. As long as they haven’t harmed us, they’re not responsible for how we take it.

While context for a compliment is important to consider, sometimes even moments where the context might be appropriate, we still don’t want to hear that compliment. That’s where the above paragraphs come from. So, while I may end up in a situation where there’s a compliment that I like and I accept it, if another person is in the same situation and they don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that the person issuing the compliment is somehow malicious or villainous or that the person who lacks desire for the compliment should necessarily be offended. Instead, dismissing the compliment as they would a comment on their shoes, that they don’t care about, is probably the best plan of action.

Miriam: Those of us who are trying to sell our brains are NOT selling our looks, and it’s insulting to presume that we are. Scicurious: Then when you get a compliment on your looks in the workplace, it’s like a slap in the face, taking away the other things you strive so hard to be proud of, by telling you what really SHOULD matter: your looks. Many people may say that really when you get a compliment on your looks, what they are REALLY saying is that you can be pretty AND do science! But why should the pretty even MATTER for your content? Why should this be pointed out at all? It has no effect on the content you are presenting, and mention of it is thus at least a non sequiter. But what it really does is remind you that you can be brilliant or not brilliant, or do good writing or not…but you’re so PRETTY!

At least, when there’s not any indication that you’re selling your looks. If you were someone who wanted to be a sexual image and wanted to write about science, I think that should be your right as much as it should be your right to write about science and not be sexual. When it comes to science and sexuality, I sell both. In fact, I enjoy selling both. I think that the thing that really bugs me about this debate is that there are so many valid points on all sides, but it has become a kind of ingroup/outgroup thing. I would love to see women in the community who don’t want to be sexual to be regarded in the light that they want to be seen in, but I don’t want them to have that at the expense of people like the Science Cheerleader or myself. I think that it is a false dichotomy to think we have to have either a sexualized element in scientific promotion or that we can’t have it at all. I want to be myself and to continue discussing science and feminist issues with my peers and I want my peers to remain as they wish to. I be me and you be you – I think that’s extremely important. For most women in the scientific community, I agree that it makes little sense for someone to follow important, informative posts with “gawrsh, ur hot!” when it doesn’t fit the context. I don’t think that should be a reason to strip all sexual elements from other people’s contribution to the community.

Scicurious: I feel like using hotness or women or sexy to sell science is not good for the women IN science. But i also think it’s not spectacular for science itself. Miriam: How so? Scicurious: Coolness doesn’t rub off. Putting science next to something that’s cool doesn’t make it more cool. It makes it science, standing next to something cool, and I feel that science has a great deal to sell itself on its own merits.

Doesn’t that mean that science will stand, regardless of context? If this is true, then it shouldn’t matter if I promote science while dressed in my petticoat, corset and kitten-kicker boots or if I’m dressed in coveralls, the message is the same.

Scicurious: To sell science with sex implies that it’s not GOOD ENOUGH on its own, that science itself can’t be fascinating or interesting unless it’s got glitter on it. But it CAN be! Look at the citizen science projects! They makes science perfectly interesting and fun, without having to prop it up next to something that’s sexy.

I don’t think that promoting science with a sexual image means that science is uncool on its own. That’s kind of like saying that men’s underwear would be unpopular, on their own, if we didn’t have visions of human-sized grapes and apples dancing in our heads. The imagery might be used to get attention to an idea, but that doesn’t mean that the product, itself, has nothing to offer on its own.

Scicurious: Yeah, I have to say that sounds really cool…but that’s not using women to sell it, it’s using something else, and something which has not yet been deemed to be harmful.

What evidence is there that it is harmful to women to be advertisers? If it *is* harmful for women to be advertisers, why is it not also harmful for men to be advertisers? or babies? or puppies? I’m not convinced that selling something with a woman’s image is harmful to women, in general. I’m not convinced that science would be ‘better’ than the rest of the world if they avoid sexual imagery when promoting itself. I don’t think that using or not using sexual imagery makes something better or worse than the next thing. In fact, I suspect that attitude has become an excuse for marginalizing a segment of the population. I admit that there is some bias, on my end, since I’m the population being marginalized and directly affected by that attitude. I am the outgroup that is shunned when others decide that sexual imagery is somehow a ‘bad thing’ and should always be avoided in certain situations. The thing about being in the outgroup for something like this is, it sucks.

Miriam: Exactly. And then we come back around again to selling science with sexy women. People made arguments that Nerd Girls or cheerleading are not actually about sexy women, which frankly I think are ridiculous.

When I write on shethought or indieskeptics, it is not about sexy women. Most of the time, when I write here on sexandscience, it is not about sexy women. Instead, I write about things like issues surrounding abuse, mummies, health, the Muslim use of the veil, and abortion. Me being a sex worker doesn’t play a role in those articles. They have nothing to do with sexy women and the people who read them aren’t thinking about sex, usually, when they read them.

Scicurious: Also…why science cheerleaders? Why not literature cheerleaders? Financial cheerleaders? English teachers surely need more exposure and appreciation.

Is cheerleader reading advocates close enough? Why would the existence or non existence of other types of cheerleaders be relevant to if a science cheerleader should or should not exist?

Miriam: I’m rather fond of the Radical Cheerleaders. They cheer for left-wing causes, are kinda punk, and include a range of body types.

Actually, this comment touches on the real problem more than anything else that has been said. Stereotyping. Isn’t the real problem more about how scientists tend to be non-conformists and by tossing in a sexual theme with a stereotyped womanly image, we feel a tiny bit of loss because now we’re being shoved in an uncomfortable direction, into the mainstream? Why is it acceptable to have a sexualized image of people who have a range of body types but not so acceptable if the image is of someone who conforms to a beauty stereotype? Is it better that I’m a fat, perhaps a little gothy, chick than it would be if I were a skinny cheerleader? Should that make a difference at all? Why? If we do think it is suddenly acceptable to have a cheerleader, perhaps sexy, image if the imagery is of women with a range of body types, aren’t we then contributing to the problem of ingroup/outgroup behavior by placing the Science Cheerleader in the outgroup to our ingroup?

Scicurious: Too true! I usually try to start out my days pretty well dressed. it makes me feel more confident, but at the end of the day, I smell like rodents. Oh well, at least Sci-cat thinks its pretty cool. And of course no one wants to punish people for being good looking. You’re ALLOWED to be good looking and a scientist.

Yay! Now I need to get the scientist part down.

Scicurious: Darlene Cavalier has stated in comments on my blog that she wants it to be ok to be good looking, and a cheerleader, and a scientist. I think that’s great and just fine, but I worry that using cheerleaders to promote science makes the looks supersede the science. And while using cheerleaders, and things that little girls like, to promote science for kids SHOULD be fine, it’s only really fine when we live in a society where we do not have to worry about being taken less seriously because of our looks. Sadly, we do not live in that society, and cheerleaders have far more connotations than just being role models for little girls.

I don’t think that context makes it wrong or only OK when we have a different society. Isn’t that kind of like saying that it is only OK to eat blueberries in a certain context or it is only OK to dress a certain way when society is different? I don’t think the ethics surrounding this issue change just because we don’t yet have the society we want. Also, if society is really the problem, then shouldn’t we work toward changing that problem instead of changing this behavior just because that problem exists? In fact, I think that because there is a problem with people’s personal biases, that’s all the more reason to show people how we can break the norm through being whoever we are HOT or NOT, and still being smart and educated. If you want people to take you seriously as a hot scientist, then be a hot scientist and let people see your value that way. If you want people to take you seriously as a non-hot scientist, then be that. It is entirely up to you. Don’t hide from what you are because you’re concerned that society hasn’t matured as much as you. If we always did that, then we’d NEVER see progress. We’d forever be stuck in this cave where scientists can’t be hot or scientists can’t be women and ugly in order to be heard. That would be really unpleasant!

Scicurious: I think there is a divide here. People want to promote science, and the easy way to do that is based on using female images to make science sexy. But I’m not sure we can do that AND try to keep comments on our boobs away from our blogs at the same time. While, in a perfect world, we SHOULD be able to do this, there’s no perfect world, and there are still too many connotations with using sexy to sell science that could negatively affect the women trying to perform and write about science on a daily basis.

I think there’s got to be a way to promote science that is effective and exciting. Citizen Science projects and fun science blogs for kids and adults are a GREAT start. Other great ideas for outreach are things like math books for girls and books on math and science that spark general interest, and are BY women, but do not focus on appearance. I think we can and should build on that kind of outreach. It’s great to look however you want, and do whatever you want (cheerleading, gymnastics, D&D, anime), and still do science. But mostly, it’s great to DO SCIENCE!

I think we should have the best of both worlds, really. There should be science outreach that is non-sexual, but I also think that the science blogging community should embrace the diversity that exists and welcome those who promote science in their own ways, no matter if it is a sexy promotion or not. I think diversity is important and that dismissing sexual imagery in association with science is only helping to create rifts within the community between a minority who doesn’t mind being sexualized or who are excited about presenting their subject matter as a cheerleader.

Oh, and I completely agree with that last part, YAY, SCIENCE! Now I have to find a left testicle for it.

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine directed me towards a reality TV series called “Hookers: Saved on the Strip.” The show revolves around someone I have heard of before: Annie Lobert. Annie runs an organization called “Hookers for Jesus” and a place called “Destiny House” where she brings hookers to Jesus and pretends that they’ve all escaped from slavery. If you go to her website, you’ll find that ‘about page’ starts out with this:

Hookers for Jesus is faith based organization that addresses the realitiesannie-lobert of human sex trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation linked to pornography and the sex industry. We are committed to reaching out to children/teens/women that need assistance/escape from sex slavery.

One problem with Hookers for Jesus and the shelter she runs, Destiny House, is that Lobert uses misleading information and ideas in order to promote her organization. Based on her website, you’ll find that she seems to assume that women in the industry are somehow slaves. Obviously, anything people think is really bad should be compared to slavery or internment camps, right? The Facts page at the Destiny House website also promotes a lot of things that aren’t even true.

12-14 – Average age of first involvement in prostitution.

I’ve debunked this before. So I’ll just quote myself to save time:

That’s a lie that has been repeated for a long time, all over the place. Someone did a study on children who were forced into prostitution and then assumed that the numbers in the study on children applied to the industry as a whole. Obviously, that’s really bad reporting. It is really bad science and it is a horribly damaging myth to spread. It is sad that it is such a widespread myth. It is one of those myths that people believe because it is scary, not because there’s a rational reason to believe in it. A quick meta analysis of the information gained from this study on women detained for prostitution, you know, an actual study that collected data on the actual group we’re talking about, the average age the participants started prostituting themselves appears to be 20. Of course, we need far more information and this study has a natural bias because the people conducting the study were after other information. However, applying that data to the question of what the average age people enter prostitution is would certainly be far more accurate than using a study that was only about children entering prostitution.

Other aspects of Lobert’s site are misleading as well. For one thing, she focuses a lot on ‘facts’ related to child sex trafficking. However, there is no evidence, anywhere that I have seen thus far, that Lobert interacts with children who have been sex trafficked. In fact, where most of the ‘facts’ are related to children, on the Destiny House website, it seems unlikely that Lobert deals with children very much at all. Because when a child is found in the sex trade, it is usually a case of child sex slavery and the case gets turned over to Child Protective Services. Unless Lobert has some sort of license that allows her to foster such a child, and a suitable location for the child (which the Destiny House does not appear to be), then she can’t do the things for those children that she lists as her services on her organization websites. In other words, Annie Lobert is lying.

Furthermore, the issues facing children forced into the sex industry are dramatically different than those facing adults in the sex industry. So making a big deal out of children she’s not helping doesn’t tell anyone much at all about what she does for the women she’s supposedly helping and spouting off information that is completely unrelated to the women in her shelter is, at best, not helpful and, at worst, deceptive. I don’t think I can stress this, enough; children are incapable of giving informed consent like these women were. Children who are forced into this industry face much bigger problems than adults in the industry. They’re more vulnerable and more prone to long-term problems because of their own situations. Lumping them together with the women is demeaning to the experiences of each group.

So, I watched the first episode of Hookers, because I felt I really needed to know what was being said about the sex industry, if anything at all. Annie kicks off the show with this little gem:

Each year, more than 100,000 women and children are sex trafficked in America. They’re bought, sold, beaten, raped and killed every day. No one hears their cries for help. For over a decade, I was one of them. I sold my body and I almost lost my soul. My name is Annie Lobert, and I’m the founder of Hookers for Jesus. The Las Vegas strip is my office and my job is to get women off the streets.

Does that statistic sound suspicious? It did to me. So, I turned to Google. On google, I found no study that stated anything like this. Yes, people are sex trafficked in America. There are such things as people being forced into slavery where they are expected to do sexual things. That is a very, very serious matter, but as far as I have seen, thus far, Annie isn’t working with sex slaves and she pretty much pulled that statistic out of her ass. Also, based on the implied definition she uses on her website of ‘sex trafficking,’ that should be a bigger number. If sex worker is the same as sex trafficked, as she implies, then she’s got a lot more counting to do if she’s to find out how many there are. The sex industry is a very large industry. It is also ethically icky to imply that you’re saving sex slaves when you’re actually helping people who voluntarily entered an industry. Shame on you, Annie Lobert!

Also, while the instance of domestic violence is higher per capita for people in the sex industry, implying that all in the sex industry experience this is misleading and saying that the solution to the problem is getting them out is kind of like saying the solution to people drowning is no longer allowing anyone to play in the water. People will, very likely, always like to play in the water and people will always be inclined to do sex work. The solution to the problem of violence against people in the sex industry is to make the sex industry safer, just like the way to prevent drowning is to teach people to swim and navigate water.

I want to reinforce something about this show, really quick, because I think it is important. Nobody featured in the first episode of Hookers: Saved on the strip was forced into the sex trade. All who are featured, including Annie, herself, describe their situations and it is clear that their entry into sex work is a choice that they made. Slaves don’t get to choose. It is evil to take advantage of real slavery and child exploitation in order to benefit Hookers For Jesus and to claim that people who were free to do something were slaves or related to those two horrific experiences. Annie Lobert was never a slave. It is sickening that she attempts to imply that she and, others who have made choices in their lives, that they decided they didn’t like, are slaves.

All that being said, I’m not against an organization that helps women leave the sex industry, if they want to. I am against treating the sex industry as if it is a ‘bad thing,’ itself and I’m against this organization using religion in order to accomplish its goals. What happens when someone wants to leave the sex trade because they just want a change and they have some other religious affiliation? Adding guilt and a natural bias against them for their choices and their lack of being a jesusphile is not going to be useful to them at all.

The first episode of Hookers focuses, partly, on a girl named Regina. Regina has a few good points to make in the show, even though they try to make her story side with Lobert’s point of view. For one, Regina has stripped before and says, multiple times, that she doesn’t think stripping is the same as selling sex. She’s right! Lobert seems to assume that, because she met her pimp while she was stripping, that selling sex and stripping go hand in hand. She actually claims that stripping is a gateway to prostitution. This is misleading. Some strippers might sell sex, but many do not. In fact, some of the highest paid strippers that I know of don’t sell sex because if you sell sex, then the guy cums and he goes home and stops paying you. Selling sex, for strippers, is bad for business. Most strippers are also aware of the dangers of selling sex and so they object to it based on a variety of other reasons, such as they don’t want to go to jail or they don’t want a disease or they’re loyal to their spouse or boyfriend. In fact, other than the potential to go to jail and not wanting to lose money, the reasons for not selling sex for strippers pretty much mirrors why most other people might not have sex with a random person. Strippers, as it turns out, are quite capable of making appropriate sexual decisions for themselves.

bio_page_regina_400An interesting element of this episode is that Regina and Annie share the screen time devoted to telling Regina’s story. I’m not sure entirely why, because there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Regina telling her own story. To further make this element of the show odd, to say the least, the story told by Regina about herself and the story told by Annie about Regina don’t seem to be entirely congruent. Annie assumes that Regina was kicked out of her home situation and, while Regina doesn’t completely contradict that, the way the story is cut up for film, Regina makes comments about calling her dad to tell him she entered the Navy and it doesn’t seem to flow with the story about a kid being kicked out. I could be wrong about this, but the story seems to be broken, here, at a critical point in the story. Regina met her pimp in the Navy, but saying she was kicked out of her house makes her story more dramatic, I guess.

Another element of Regina’s story that is worth considering are her comments about money.

The last paycheck I got, I could have made that in an hour.

That comment leads to another scene where Lobert says, “The money is definitely what keeps girls in the business.”

That’s only partly true. Money is a great motivator, I have no doubt about that, and Regina is wise to miss that money. Money gets you food and shelter and Internet access and Darth Tater, the Mr. Potatohead version of Darth Vader. Money is a nice thing to have and when it comes to making decisions based on if you have spare cash for a spudly Sith Lord or you can barely afford Ramen Noodles, many people will opt for the option to fork out the dough for Master Tater. That being said, there are other reasons why the adult industry is an appealing place to be. For example, a job based on pleasure is a hell of a lot better than a job based on removing grease from a fast food service grill. Also, being able to have control over your schedule, not having an actual boss to report to and having the freedom to say and do things that you want to and get paid for it, is a really awesome work situation to have.

I will soon watch the second episode of Hookers, and if I deem it necessary, I may write a response to it, as well. For now, I’d like to see Annie’s take on her spreading misleading information around and offering such biased services through her organization.

Note: It was really difficult to not make fun of Annie for mistaking the Squirrel’s penis for an umbilical cord. And the one thing that made the whole show worth watching was hearing the lady at the stable say, “we’re going to learn some things with these horses and shre what they have to offer. The outside of a horse is what’s good for the inside of a woman!” Hilarious!

In a world where sexual topics are frequently shunned in most formal contexts, where walking into certain buildings requires us to attempt to leave our vaginae and penises behind, it is not surprising that conflicts will exist between sex industry workers and the rest of the working world. Sadly, a crossing over of the sex industry into other elements of American culture can have tragic results and adding to those matters the tendency for humans to be self-righteous and self-serving (not that all do this, but many do) and one sex worker coming out to the rest of the world can result in the biggest social explosion he or she will ever see.

That’s what happened to Lisa D. Chávez. Her story is actually pretty complex. The major players in the events that transpired each have their own agendas and have to deal with their own set of battles due to what happened with Chávez. I don’t want to assume that any single person is an evil individual, in this matter. Instead, I think there are some serious flaws in people’s thinking that builds upon this issue and creates a complete social mess that can ruin lives.

Does that sound overly dramatic? Well, it isn’t. People in the sex industry are constantly fighting against some extreme social stigmas that can affect the kind of future we might have. This isn’t because people in the sex industry have automatically done something wrong, instead, it is because society often assumes people in the sex industry are bad people, with questionable moral values and lacking skills. Furthermore, people often want to avoid being associated with those in the sex industry because they don’t want to deal with others questioning their judgment.

The Chávez case includes more problems than that, though, so I’m going to sift through the information that I have and see what we find. My first impression of this issue started here, when ScienceGoddess sent me the link. From there, I read the article David Kroll linked to, here. A quick Google search generates links that all lead back to the article in the Chronicle, but additional google-fu did get me to the site Chávez worked for*.

According to the Chronicle, Ms. Chávez took the phone sex job as a natural response to being stuck in a sucky economic situation. This isn’t an uncommon motivation for entering the sex industry, which has a high turnover rate because it seems like an easy way to make fast cash and, as our society becomes more sexually progressive, it seems like a more acceptable thing to do. That is, unless you’ve got some significant social standing, like being a professor. This kind of job, though, isn’t easy and people frequently leave the industry as fast as they entered, for a variety of reasons.

The self-described, pro-sex feminist, Ms. Chávez had heard about being a phone sex dominatrix through her students, she discussed the empowerment that such a job can give an individual and how this job could give the students good life experiences and improve their writing. I can tell you, based on my experience and the experiences that my peers have shared with me, those things are very true. Sex work can be very empowering and can give a person experiences in life that they can’t find anywhere else. The catch is, you still have to deal with the rest of society.

Back in 2008, it really bothered me how others reacted to the sex industry and how the people I knew within the industry didn’t really reflect the image that society seemed to create of them. As a result, I conducted a series of very informal interviews, asking my peers questions about how they saw themselves and about how they thought others saw them. One of the most disturbing things I noticed was that my peers seemed to indicate that the worst part of their job was not the work itself or how their clients treated them. Instead, it was how the people outside the industry treated them. There was a running theme that seemed to indicate that the thing that made working in the sex industry the hardest were the social rules that told each worker that they were bad for what they did; it was the people who discriminated against the sex workers who made life for the sex worker suck. The job was often power; general society were robbers of it. Sadly, it didn’t take much time for the empowered Chávez to experience this and part of the reason was due to a few mistakes she made.**

Chávex’ story, if her side is really what happened, doesn’t really show malicious intent. The errors that Chávez made appear to be that she might have influenced a student’s choices and she had her picture taken with another.

When I first started stripping, the experience was absolutely amazing. One of my friends was also a stripper and one night, we were sharing our experiences and talked about how our job made us feel. In that conversation, she said to me something like, “you know, when I see a girl in a sucky job, like bagging groceries, and I think about how pretty she is and how nice, I often wonder why it is that if I were to tell her she should try my job out, it feels like I’m selling crack. If I had any other job, though, it would be like I was handing her a life-saving tether.” My friend was right. My friend was right. Our jobs are looked at so negatively by society, telling a person that they should apply at McDonald’s ranks higher than telling them that they should be a stripper, even if the latter was more likely to meet all of her needs. There’s no way to know how the conversation played out when Chávez talked about the sex industry or her job with students, but even if we did know how the conversation went, the odds are high that her peers would have been just as critical. One of her students could have been starving and Chávez was likely to face criticism when her opinion on phone sex influenced a choice. In fact, the story of the student Chávez posed with, Liz Derrington, had a sad story of her own to tell, having gone through a divorce and apparently landing a job at the same place Chávez worked on her own, but people didn’t look at the events that transpired as someone trying to claw their way out of a pot of boiling water. The other student mentioned was also not seen with a very objective light on her story. Even the Chronicle hints at a concern that Chávez indirectly influenced her decision, but it ignores that this person is an adult that made her decision on her own and Chávez didn’t force the girl into it. Instead, they saw it as Chávez potentially abusing her position and harming the learning environment.

Pictures are the inarticulate mouthpiece of the sex industry. people say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if that is true, pictures can be horribly deceptive bastards. People give pictures far more credit than they’ve ever deserved. I don’t want to say that pictures are horrible and all wrong, but pictures tell a very limited story which usually lacks context. So it was that when Chávez posed for a picture with her student, the picture spoke for them, but it didn’t really say much at all and, to some people, it said the wrong thing, entirely.

Chávez and Derrington were at work, at a job unrelated to Chávez’ position as a professor and Derrington’s role as a student when suggestive pictures of them were taken for the people they were working for. In other words, they were doing a different job. Yet, these pictures were a major player in Chávez’ becoming a target of her peers. The objection to Chávez’ alternate job could easily have cost her the position she had as a professor. Yet, most other alternate jobs that a professor might take wouldn’t have been a big deal, no matter if she was working alongside a student as an equal or not. So, is it an abuse of authority if Chávez poses next to a student, who happens to be a co-worker, in that context, for erotic purposes? Not anymore than if they worked alongside each other at a fast food joint because, in that context, Chávez wasn’t in an authoritative position over her student.

But that’s not all that fueled the controversy around Chávez. Chávez taught creative writing and her students complained to other professors about sexually charged conversations in class. This brings up some other interesting questions. When is it appropriate to talk about sexuality in a college classroom? If the person teaching Gender Studies classes can talk about porn, why can’t a Math teacher? It seems to me, the difference is in context. Is talking about sexuality relevant to the class or somehow important to the student’s experience in that class? If so, then discussion about sexuality should be open, honest and frank as long as nobody’s safety is compromised. Skill in writing is not an easy thing to gain. Unlike other subjects, where going from a problem to a solution is easy, where 2+2 will always equal 4 and knowing what the Fibonacci sequence is can unpack a number of useful applications for you, neatly, being successful at writing is complicated. Writing is barely formulaic and being able to write articulately about things requires knowledge and experiences to draw upon that aren’t mathematically constant. Furthermore, a good creative writer can write about all aspects of life. Sex, one of our most innate drives, is one of those aspects. So, does sex have a place in a class on creative writing? I am quite certain that it does, but society probably disagrees with me. I just don’t think they have a rational basis for their disagreement. So, for the students who complained about the sexually-charged conversations in Chávez’ class, unless they weren’t learning anything and/or someone was getting hurt, the problem in their class was with them.

The fact that people sought to harm Chávez by showing her pictures from her other job to her superiors is a horrible statement about the type of people they are. To me, it seems just as unethical as when people tried to get PZ Myers fired over unprovoked harm to a cracker. I know, having erotic pictures taken of you is not the same as violence to a cracker, but the similarity is in people being unable to keep in-work behavior separate from away-from-work behavior.

There is part of this controversy that is so sticky and confusing that I’m going to refrain from saying anything authoritative on it at all. In regards to a student, Carrie Cutler, there is a lot of he-said-she-said involved. There’s not really a way to gather information on what happened between them mostly because all that is related to them in this issue is from personal testimonies from people which appear to vary. It also seems as if there is some missing conflict that isn’t talked about, even in the article from the Chronicle. Basically, the conflict doesn’t make sense and appears to be something that should be disregarded when examining Chávez’ work as a telephone dominatrix. If either the student’s accusations that Chávez spoke inappropriately about her or Chávex’ claim that the Cutler was trying to harm her were true, those are matters that should be dealt with on their own. Chávez is responsible for her actions as a professor and students are also responsible for their own conduct. If the student and Chávez were moonlighting as waitresses, we wouldn’t consider drama carrying over from their waitress jobs to be questionable, just because it caused drama at the school. Instead, it would just be the conduct that took place at school, related only to the dramatic incident, that would be a concern for Chávez’ employers.

Yet another issue lurks in the murky water of this controversy, as well. When we look to an educator to help teach us a subject, we hold them to a kind of odd standard. Instead of measuring each professor based on what they can teach us, we set up other standards that go beyond that one thing. The classroom and general feel of a lesson is all the burden of a professor to carry. We call this, ‘the learning environment.’ Ms. Chávez was investigated for possibly creating a bad learning environment for her students. These accusations were not based on information gained from all of Chávez’s students. Instead, it was, again, the accounts of a few who may not have had all the information. Furthermore, this kind of investigation appears to make Chávez responsible for the educational environment when others could be influencing it. I’m glad that the investigation resulted in the conclusion that Chávez was not guilty of creating a hostile learning environment or of sexual harassment because it appears to be the case that it is the aversion that her peers had that was the driving force behind it, and not something Chávez did to actually harm someone. Chávez’ peers were then asked to reach some sort of peaceful settlement.

It didn’t help. The teachers are still objecting to Chávez staying with the school.

Enter another complicatedly tangled web: racism and sexism. Given the sparseness of evidence related to these issues, I’m only tossing them out there because they relate to the story. The hows and whys of their relevance have not been clearly revealed and so are not really worth commenting on other than to mention that they are there. Sadly, racism and sexism are a serious problem when it comes to issues related to the sex industry. That’s pretty much all I can say to shed light on that aspect of the story. Again, if these accusations are true, they should be treated as another matter, and not be used to influence decisions about Chávez’ work in the sex industry. For similar reasons, I have to skip over many of the accusations found in the Chronicle, such as faculty calling Chávez a prostitute. It is silly, but not uncommon for people to exaggerate the role an individual has in the sex industry. I get accused of being a prostitute, as well, and most of my work is done at home, while I’m completely alone (it is impossible to have sex with someone for money when there’s not a someone there with you). I think these accusations come from a desire for those objecting to the industry to demonize individuals as much as possible and it is a elementary school playground tactic. The biggest difference seems to be that, as adults, those involved in this scandal get to let their lawyers do the name-calling for them.

The saddest aspect of this whole debate seems to be that a whole department in a school has been affected by, not Chávez’ actions, alone, but by the reaction that her peers had to her work as a performer. Her work, which should not have mattered, has such a stigma attached to it that her peers were incapable of dealing with it as adults. Their tantrums over how they feel has created chaos that the rest of the school has to deal with. I’m not going to paint Chávez as a lone victim, but I really don’t think she’s as guilty of creating a poor learning environment for her students as her peers appear to have been.

David Kroll, from PLoS suggests that Chávez resign:

Not knowing anything more about the case than the article in The Chronicle, the simplest resolution would seem to be that the faculty member in question resign.

While I understand his reasoning, the student experience is a very important thing to consider, I don’t really think that is the right answer. If this issue really is being fueled by the offended peers of Chávez, then her career is lost due to their callous, bully hands. Her actions as a phone dominatrix were not harmful and were not an example of an abuse of power. Regardless of if they looked like coercion, they shouldn’t be treated as if they are because we know, based on the information given in the Chronicle, that they weren’t. Allowing her picture to be taken was a mistake by Chávez, but only because of how society reacts to these things, not because she actually was doing something wrong. Should she be forced to resign over the picture, then it is more of a testament to the power of bigotry against someone who worked in the sex industry than an actual, rational response to the situation.

As for the other accusations that exist in the comments and in the article, there’s no way for bystanders like myself and Kroll can’t really get enough information on them to take any objective stance, so we should really be responding to the whole thing with that in mind, and addressing only those issues which the Chronicle gives us sufficient evidence for.

*As a side note from someone who has been around in the industry for a while, the site Chávez worked for is an atypical contract arrangement. It doesn’t encourage the same safety standards that most other contracts do that allow people in the sex industry to keep their identities hidden. Further, in order to begin working for them, People Exchanging Power requires applicants to first pay for an information packet and then you can start working for them and, if you stick around for six weeks, you might get your money back. None of what is said to be in the information packet is something that couldn’t be put online someplace for performers. While it may not be the intention of PEP to do so, this stinks of a way to take advantage of people looking for this kind of work.

There is also a little deception in how they present your potential earnings on the site. While the website says that an individual makes $35-$50 per every hour of talk time, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be talking the whole time that you’re logged in to work for them. most companies have a range of per minute earning potential, but the catch is that you’re only going to make money when you’re talking and if there are large gaps of time between the calls you take, you are unlikely to make the kind of money they’re trying to imply.

**While I think my interviews with people are relevant and important to this article, I am aware that they cannot be considered something that was done with scientific rigor. While I do my best to preserve the scientific process as I go about my study of sex and the sex industry, I am only one person and my peers are not even close to including the diversity I would encounter were I ever able to have the exciting opportunity of doing a cross-sectional study.

Apparently, someone forgot to send Montana the memo about how homosexual sex is normal and probably shouldn’t be a crime. Montana’s Republican Party is still trying to make gay sex illegal.

Anti-sex themes in the law have existed for quite a long time. In the 1600s, colonists had a variety of punishments for adulterers and fornicators. A punishment of being whipped and then wearing a badge which marked your crime for your peers is, perhaps, the most well-known punishment, now. If a woman did not properly object to a man’s advances, she could be subject to punishments, such as whippings, even if she did not consent to sex. Homosexual acts have been punished with a range of actions from whippings to exile to castration.

All of these punishments were horrible things to do to people and have long since been eliminated from our legal systems due to their inhumanity. It has been recognized, especially in the last two decades, that punishing people for consensual sexual behavior is archaic and not in the best interest of preserving the rights of this country’s inhabitants. Laws against most consensual sexual behavior between adults have been declared unconstitutional and our current population of young adults is barely aware that laws once existed that could have punished them severely for things they do regularly.

This is why the Montana GOP’s stance is so startling. Why is a stance that has been abandoned by most of the rest of the country a part of a political platform in Montana? How can we enlighten them and get them caught up with the rest of the country who has now progressed to working on the next issue, equal rights in marriage?

2010-09-12-candc-52-undo-buttonAbstinence-only programs have been an absurd educational joke from their inception – many hundreds of years ago, when chastity belts were cool and a pregnancy could get a girl killed. As the evidence stacks up against the arguments that abstinence-only advocates use, their cognitive dissonance seems to increase and they come up with new ways to make them feel better about their ideas. This includes ignoring the problem once it has clearly failed.

In case you hadn’t heard, in order to regain the attention of teens who have failed to succeed at abstinence, there is an answer. As it turns out, people who have had sex before can still commit to abstinence and they can become a virgin again! That’s right, your sexual experiences apparently come with an ‘undo’ button, after all.

According to Reap (which is a really creepy name for a Catholic website), secondary virginity is a restoration of one’s purity after one has had sex. They say:

God has the power to restore your emotionally, spiritually and mentally to a place where you can be pure and whole again. Committing to chastity after mistakes is possible and helps you become an amazing gift for your future spouse.

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This morning, my attention has been drawn to this. A well-meaning feminist who thinks Jay Leno has hurt women, most of whom he has never met, by using two words. “Victims” of prostitution will now forever remain victims because of Jay Leno. At least, that’s what she appears to be claiming. I’m pretty sure this is not the case, so I took it upon myself to examine everything she said in order to see what is valid, what isn’t and what may or may not make sense. All the quotes to follow are from her, until I state otherwise:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
3000 W. Alameda Avenue
Burbank, CA 91523

I’m glad she put the address there so I can write a letter of my own.

Dear Jay:
I watched your show for years but I can no longer do so. Why? Because words matter, Jay. Without fail, several times a week, you refer to women in the sex industry as “whores” or “hookers.”

Of course words matter. If words didn’t matter to us, we would not be the ja-y-offend1species that we are. We’d be something else; something else that does not use words. Just ask a zombie!

It is true that the words ‘hooker’ and ‘whore’ gets used a lot on some tv programs. I can’t really comment on the frequency with which they appear on the Tonight Show because I don’t watch it often enough. I have seen the show, though, and I am sure I’ve heard him use those terms. I don’t think, though, him using those terms would be a great reason for someone to stop watching his show. Jay Leno is an entertainer. It is his duty to keep people’s attention. Sometimes, he has to do this using words that are attention-grabbing. Most talented entertainers will do that.

Furthermore, words matter, but so does your reaction to them. Language changes rapidly as a result of people’s reaction to them. Feminists have whorechanged the meaning of the word ‘bitch’ and it is pretty likely that if Whore Magazine is a success, it will change the meaning of its name as well. We don’t need to throw a tantrum at Jay Leno to make this happen. We can do this ourselves.

Jay, did you know that most women, especially in lesser-developed nations, are sold into the sex industry, often by their own relatives?

Unless you have a seriously distorted idea of what the word ‘most’ means, that statement is wrong. Some women do get sold into slavery, sometimes into a situation where they are forced to become sex workers, but it certainly isn’t a majority and it isn’t necessarily the most common way for women to end up in the sex industry.

Did you know that right now, in India and probably many other counties, children as young as three are gang raped for profit and infected with HIV?

How could you possibly link Jay Leno’s use of two words to children being raped in India? Children being sexually abused, in any fashion, is a serious matter and I don’t want to downplay that or to pretend that it doesn’t happen. I do doubt that it happens on a regular basis. I doubt it is some sort of afternoon ritual. But, I know it can and probably does happen. It makes me sad and makes me feel like I’m not doing enough in this world. Of course, tugging at that emotional string is precisely what this sentence was for. Child abuse is a a pretty big deal and it is something that every country should be working to prevent. When you so carelessly swing the issue about, like this, as if it is a club against someone totally unrelated to the problem, that’s completely inexcusable. Shame on you, whoever you are, for using it that way! The children who do get abused in such a horrific manner deserve something much better than someone pinning the blame of their nightmare onto an innocent who couldn’t possibly be connected to it.

That in the United States, the average age of entry into prostitution is reportedly 13?

That’s a lie that has been repeated for a long time, all over the place. Someone did a study on children who were forced into prostitution and then assumed that the numbers in the study on children applied to the industry as a whole. Obviously, that’s really bad reporting. It is really bad science and it is a horribly damaging myth to spread. It is sad that it is such a widespread myth. It is one of those myths that people believe because it is scary, not because there’s a rational reason to believe in it. A quick meta analysis of the information gained from this study on women detained for prostitution, you know, an actual study that collected data on the actual group we’re talking about, the average age the participants started prostituting themselves appears to be 20. Of course, we need far more information and this study has a natural bias because the people conducting the study were after other information. However, applying that data to the question of what the average age people enter prostitution is would certainly be far more accurate than using a study that was only about children entering prostitution.

That one study in Colorado found that prostitutes die at a crude mortality rate of 391 per 100,000 in comparison with non-sex workers, where the standardized mortality for the general population during this same time frame was 1.9 per 100,000?

You must mean this study. Again, this doesn’t really have anything at all to do with Jay Leno’s use of the terms you’re upset about, but some important observations need to be made, here. Firstly, if you read the study, you’ll find that it shows that the cause of death for most of these women wasn’t because they were prostitutes. Correlation is not causation and in increased death rate for prostitutes may not be caused by the fact that they’re prostitutes. According to the study, the most common causes of death were violence and drug use. These are two issues that could more easily be addressed if prostitution were legalized and we could get people help more easily if they are on drugs AND we prostitutes who are victims of domestic violence can turn to the police without fear of being arrested because they did something illegal. A pretty decent argument could be made for the legalization of prostitution, based on this information.

That every prostitute is someone’s son, daughter, sister, brother or mother?

So is every serial killer, florist, asshole and lawyer, but that doesn’t stop us from making edgy jokes about any of them. Well, except maybe the florist. They have to deal with enough trouble in their lives, there’s no need to make jokes about them or invent crass terms to identify them with, those stamen fiddlers!

Jay, using words like “hooker” and “whore” further desensitizes people who barely care when prostitutes die locked up in cages, are tortured, thrown from cars or are left dead near a river.

There is absolutely no evidence that this is true. not a single shred of evidence. Again, we’ve approached a very serious matter and here is the author, flinging horrific events that can and sometimes do happen as if it is some sort of club that should hit anyone who happens to offend her. The abuse of sex workers is a very real and serious problem. Sex workers need to have safer environments and they need protection and they need to live in a safer world. Pretending that just saying a couple words on TV causes these problems belittles women in this situation. It devalues their experience and that can desensitize people to their troubles.

Getting a cheap laugh at the expense of these victims, and yes, they are victims, is pathetic. I really hope you are better than that.

Prostitutes, in general, are not victims because they are prostitutes. Some prostitutes are victims because people are careless. Some prostitutes are victims because they have no protection. Some prostitutes are victims because it is illegal for them just to do their job. Not all prostitutes are victims, though, and trying to make them all into victims is unappreciated and doesn’t help them.

Please take time to educate yourself on the reality of the sex industry. If you took a few hours out of your life to learn the realities of the sex industry in this country and many others, I almost guarantee you would stop throwing those terms around. There is enough pain and suffering in the world without you casually contributing to it with your callous disregard for these victims.

Jay Leno’s use of the word ‘hooker’ and ‘whore’ does far less of a disservice to prostitutes than your rant toward him does. That being said, I do hope that Jay Leno becomes informed about the sex industry. I don’t think it will change his vocabulary, much, but sex workers of all types could use more advocates. People in the sex industry face a great number of issues that tend to get ignored due to bigotry toward the sex industry. It isn’t the bigotry that leads to Jay Leno tossing terms around as an entertainer. Instead, the bigotry that hurts sex workers is the kind that claims they’re all victims, that they’re all drug addicts, that there are no other life options for them and that they’re all horrible people. It is the bigotry that makes excuses for the laws against the industry and for rants against the wrong people that creates the most problems.

I’m not going to leave this post here, though. I’m responding to a letter that was addressed to Jay Leno and posted online, encouraging people to join this person (who remains anonymous) in a writing campaign. I’m going to write my own letter. The following quote is what I will send to Jay Leno.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
3000 W. Alameda Ave.
Burbank, CA 91523-0001Dear Mr. Leno,

I understand that a writing campaign against you has begun. As far as I know, it at least involves one person, but could involve many. I would like to offer a counter-campaign that could involve just me, or could involve many.

The campaign against you is a complaint against you using the words “whore” and “hooker.” I would like to encourage you to, instead, use these words more. I don’t think you need to increase your random use of the terms, though. Instead, I want you to do just one of the things that the woman who is against you asked. I want you to learn about the sex industry.

The person who has complained about your word use seems to think that if you learned about the sex industry, you would use those terms less. it seems to me, though, that it would be wiser to use what you learn and use the terms more. It would be a tremendous help to those in the sex industry if you discussed how hookers face an incredibly high rate of domestic violence and that because their work is illegal, they can’t easily seek protection from the law. A story like that might require the use of the word ‘hooker’ several times! Likewise, discussing the tendency of the villainization of whores within the media and how it relates to stigmas that people in the sex industry face would allow you to use the word ‘whore’ a lot. I would also like to see you use the word in a more liberal way. Not only do I want to see you refer to hookers as whores, I want to see you refer to everyone in the sex industry as whores. Then, I want you to discuss how the fight against pornography hurts whores because it is literally a fight against society to take jobs away from whores. Whores need jobs, too.

Besides, if local whores are no longer doing the job, we may have to outsource and, as we all know based on our experience with call centers, heavy accents and poorly paid employees make for shitty customer service.

Sincerely,

Sophie Hirschfeld

P. S. Here is where you can find a copy of my response, online, to the campaign against you:

http://sexandscience.org/blog/?p=350

sophiefawkesIf you so desire, you can write to Jay Leno as well. However, please make your letter to him as productive as possible. Popular television shows get a tremendous amount of mail and it is possible that this campaign against Jay Leno could get overwhelming enough without them having some redundant counter-campaign going to them as well. If you do write back, it would be super-awesome if you included a reference to this post, just because I like to have credit for my evil deeds. Also, offer helpful suggestions for the show, don’t just gush over it. I like the idea of any campaign being productive, even though most of them aren’t.

Sometimes, I’m not sure about what is wise to share about myself and what isn’t, especially since when I say things on my website or twitter or facebook, my words go out to a lot of people, many of whom I don’t even know. Hi people I know and don’t know! (Picture me, tmipussywaving wildly.) This post may become TMI. However, it is TMI about my sweet vulva, so you may or may not want to read it.

Anyway, a subject has come up in a couple places in the last three days that I’ve been tempted to really discuss, but the thing that holds me back is that I don’t like talking about certain aspects of myself. I know this may be shocking to some of you who are used to me saying pretty much anything the moment I think it, but there are a few things that I don’t talk about. This is one of those precious few things. So what has been such a big deal that I’m suddenly concerned about what people will think? Labiaplasty!

I have actually considered this surgery. When I first had the idea presented to me, though, it wasn’t at the peak of the current movement like so many others, instead, it was at my first ObGyn appointment. I was 19, I was terrified, I had never willingly shown any intimate part of my body to a man before and what is his suggestion after all of these other concerns? Surgery.

Now, my labia are not freaks. They are, however, asymmetrical and they’re larger than average. I do not have a couple of monstrous growths protruding from my crotch like some prehensile tendrils getting ready to grab you. I also have another problem that isn’t entirely related, but worthsurprise mentioning only because it has been a concern discussed alongside the possibility of labiaplasty when doctors have decided it was time, yet again, for the girlparts owner’s manual discussions that we women get to have about once a year. My girl parts aren’t exactly laid out like they should be. I have a tilted cervix (something that is a bit common) and my urethra has a minor flaw. This flaw isn’t horrific, either, except that it makes me prone to getting frequent urinary tract infections. I get those a lot. They hurt, it isn’t fun. As a result of all of this, discussions about surgery on my crotch has been a frequent theme to my doctors appointments.

Out of all the Gynecologists that have surveyed my Netherlands in my adult life, two out of five have suggested that my labia are too large. Five out of five have suggested I be attentive to my urethra and three out of five have suggested that, eventually, I will have to have reconstructive surgery on my urethra. Of course, when these conversations happen, while things are all cool and calm on the outside, in my head I’m going, “THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT PUTTING A KNIFE ON MY GIRL PARTS!!!! AHHHHH!!!!!”

So here’s a weird fact about me. My job relies heavily on what my body looks like. My job relies on my pussy! My job relies on my vulva, but, I’m extremely self conscious about it. People see my vulva on a regular basis, yet, I worry about it a lot.

This doesn’t mean that I’m unnecessarily concerned. There’s a vast difference between having a medical problem, like with my urethra, and having a vanity problem, like with my labia. That doesn’t make the problem with my labia any less of a problem, for me, though.

Let me tell a little story about something that happened as a result of my labia:

As mentioned before, my labia are not outside the realm of normal, they’re just larger than average. That happens, sometimes. Because of this, I dislike wearing underwear. The next important element of the story for you to be aware of is that I like to wear fishnets. I’ve been sporting fishnets for, oh, five or six years, now. I think they’re fun. One day, I went to a party with friends while wearing, not just any pair of fishnets, but one of my fancy pairs. These were known as threadbare fishnets. That is to say, instead of being the kind of fishnets you are used to seeing, with large, dark lines against someone’s skin, these fishnets were made of fine, stretchy threads. These threads are thinner than even the thread that I most often use in my sewing machine. The effect of these fishnets was interesting because, due to the pattern, if you looked at my legs as I stood up, my legs looked normal, but if you looked at my legs at an angle, they looked really fat. It was an odd optical illusion that entertained myself and a friend of mine for at least a little bit of time that night.

The major part of the story, though, didn’t happen until after the party. Once I got home, I was still all glammed up in my fishnets, my mini-skirt (with built-in shorts) and some shiny top. I invited my friend inside for a small chat and I, feeling like the floor was a better place for me, sat comfortably on the floor and talked and stretched my legs. Suddenly, without warning, I felt a horrible sensation on my labia, like it was simultaneously being bitten and pulled at the same time. I instantly knew what was happening. My threadbare fishnets were trying to EAT MY LABIA!.

As many of you may already know, there are two kinds of being eaten alive in this world: There’s the good kind, that some of us can’t get often enough, involving gentle play and an orgasm or two, and there is the bad kind, the kind involving woman-eating violent fishnets. I shrieked. I can’t describe what it must have sounded like, because I wasn’t really listening to myself. I also quickly stood up, which I immediately discovered was a bad move. See, when I was sitting, the fishnets were stretched out farther because my legs were spread. Thus, the gaps between the threads were larger. However, when I stood up, my legs were brought together, the gaps were smaller, which made them CLOSE around my LABIA. I’m pretty sure that my shrieking got louder, but I still wasn’t listening to myself, so I couldn’t really tell you for sure. At this point, I did the one thing that anyone might do when they’re being eaten alive by woman-eating leggings. I tore at them. Right in front of my friend, I reached under my skirt, up through the shorts leg, hooked my finger into one of the fishnet holes and ripped. Then I did it again. After a third rip, my labia was finally free and I was reduced from the shrieking-panicking victim of a fishnet attack to the whiny heap on the floor, trying not to cry. In case you must know, my friend still loves me, but she doesn’t love me enough to ban me from my fishnets.

So, not only are my labia big enough that I’ve heard doctors question them, they’re fat enough that a pair of fishnets considered them to be dinner.

This issue doesn’t stop there, though. I was just using all the previous rambling to lead up to something else. This:

Video: You Don’t Need Labiaplasty

The link for this video was posted on facebook by my friend, Heidi Anderson.* She’s had to kind of struggle with this issue and I’ve been mostly making little comments and sitting on the sidelines without jumping in with what I know because, well, it is tough to be objective when your own junk is involved, you know?

If you have the time, watch the video. I don’t want to be accused of distorting what someone said because someone misunderstands what was said. If you don’t want to watch the video, I’ll quote the important parts below so I can properly respond to them, but I’m not going to type the whole transcript to the video (that’s pretty time-consuming). All the quote boxes below are statements made in the video:

I just want you to know, you do not need labiaplasty!

Firstly, I really dislike it when total strangers tell me what I do and don’t need. How could anyone other than myself, my doctor and maybe the few guys I’ve had sex with even know if I need labiaplasty? What if my labia were so large that they were uncomfortable? They aren’t, but given the experiences that I’ve had and my one bad fishnets experience, I can totally see how other people might have problems with discomfort. Several other girls I know have shared experiences where their large labia caused hygiene issues. It wasn’t that they were unclean, it was that the extra folds of skin around their vulva creates reservoirs for fluids to collect in. Fluids collecting in a single area on our bodies for even just a couple hours can cause problems with smell, irritation and possibly an increased chance for infection.

It’s called labiaplasty. Does that sound fun?

“Copulation” sounds like some sort of bizarre surgical procedure, but I have heard lots of rumors that it is very fun. Something having a specific name doesn’t make it fun or not fun. Something being fun or not fun is also not an indication of if it is important or not.

Scar tissue forms after there’s been an incision and can be very painful when, um, you give birth and it rips.

This would be an understandable concern if a woman intends to give birth after her labiaplasty, but it is also a concern that she should discuss with her doctor. We do need to hold doctors accountable for this risk, and encourage them to make sure to mention it to their patients. If her concerns about her body still outweigh this possible consequence, then it is unreasonable to use it as a complaint against her decision to fix something she sees as wrong with her body.

All vulvas are beautiful!

Tell that to the people who are born girls but want to be boys. To them, their vulvas are a mistake. Every body may be beautiful, but we’re not always beautiful because every one of our body parts is beautiful. Sometimes, being comfortable in our own skin means making our own skin conform to the standard we set. For some, that’s as simple as putting our hair into a ponytail; for others, they may want a change that is more dramatic.

Furthermore, while I appreciate the desire to make everyone feel comfortable with their body, it is also important for people to know when something is wrong. Thus, we should probably acknowledge things that might make a vulva less than beautiful. There are many medical conditions that can affect how a vulva looks and functions. Many of these conditions will happen to most adult women. It is important to recognize beauty in ourselves, but not at the expense of possibly ignoring other important issues that women may face regarding their health. That includes women who may be more prone to infections due to some anatomical problem. Knowing this makes me very uncomfortable with the popularity of declaring that every vulva is beautiful. I’d suggest changing the theme to ‘every wanted vulva is beautiful,’ but that would defeat the purpose of the video and it feels like I’m stealing a campaign slogan from Pro-Choice rallies.

There are as many vulvas in the universe as there are stars in the sky or snowflakes in the winter.

Forgive me for being pedantic, but, no, there aren’t.

You can get Tee Corrine’s ‘Cunt Coloring Book’ …

I feel conflicted. Part of my head is wondering if there’s a penis coloring 51uyhtaz5wl_sl500_aa300_book, too, and if I can get that along with the ‘Cunt Coloring Book.” Part of my head wants this book just because it is a book full of crotch. Part of my head thinks the other parts of my head are weird and really wants to move out of this obviously crowded apartment in my skull.

The video also discussed Betty Dodson, who is worth discussing another time, but probably not really here. I dislike the use of her as a tool in this video’s discussion. Without the ability to lay out all of the facts about labiaplasty to Dodson herself and allowing her to respond, it is unfair to even mention her in this context at all. That being said, I still want to address this comment:

… rather than hide her body for the rest of her life, and rather than cut off pieces of her body, she went on a journey of self-discovery toward self-love. And it’s really important to think about that. To think about that, you know, you can either go down the road, down the road of self-hate and self-loathing, or go toward self-love.

I dislike how this part of the video implies that modifying one’s body is a statement of self-hate. If someone has a problem with their body, it doesn’t mean that they hate themselves. If I feel like I’m fat and I exercise more to fix that problem, I don’t hate myself and wanting to fix that problem isn’t a testament of hate. Likewise, if I feel like I want to decorate myself and get a tattoo, getting a tattoo doesn’t mean that I hate my body. If I have a scar on my side and I think it is ugly, getting it removed is not a statement of self-hate. If I shave my vulva and armpits, it doesn’t mean I hate myself. If my friend gets breast implants, that doesn’t mean she hates herself. If someone gets their labia reduced in size, this doesn’t mean that they hate themselves. All of these examples are people’s way of improving themselves. Just because other people don’t approve, doesn’t mean that these people hate themselves. Saying that it is about self-hate is a destructive statement! If you’re concerned that people hate themselves, why would you make a statement that might make them feel guilty for changing themselves? That’s absurd! To me, these statements are hurtful to my peers and, if I choose to change myself, to me as well. I can understand the body-positive theme, but I can only identify with it if it truly is a body-positive theme, not if it is a body-positive theme that is exclusive because people don’t like a certain type of modification.

You know, a lot of the time, when we think about where have we seen images of women’s vulvas, it’s pretty much only in either doctored, digital images, that have been altered or photoshopped, or, it might be pornography. And, the people that are in pornography, they may be beautiful, but they’re selected for framing a certain, stereotypical look, of a very young, pre-pubescent vulva.

If your video isn’t already enough to scare people into thinking like you do, the good old pedophile scare will surely do the trick! No, mainstream porn is not trying to frame a pre-pubescent vulva. Being in the adult entertainment industry, this is one of the most irritating claims that we have to deal with. People don’t want my vulva because it looks like a child’s. People want my vulva because 1) it is attached to me and 2) it happens to be a vulva. Furthermore, do you know what vulvas in mainstream porn look like? Anatomical drawings of vulvas! That’s right, just head on over to your Gynecologist’s office and ask to see their anatomical posters. You know what you’ll find? The same thing that you find in porn. I’m pretty sure doctors aren’t trying to portray pre-pubescent vulvas, either. There isn’t really isn’t evidence for the pre-pubescent claim about porn (and shaving, since that’s usually where you see the pre-pubescent claims made, in discussions about shaving), it was just something that someone said and everyone who had a complaint against porn latched onto it and didn’t let go. It wasn’t bad enough to shame people for considering modifying their bodies, must we also make people feel guilty over porn because someone said the porn stars are intended to look like children? And what about women who really do, just by nature of how genetics work, have vulvas that look young, is it really necessary to make them feel uncomfortable? Isn’t it just as bad to make someone feel guilty for that as it is to make someone feel guilty for having large labia or some other variation in their snatch?

There are all different kinds of vulvas, …

This is true, and I’m not going to argue against that. It is true that people shouldn’t worry if their vulva doesn’t match what they see in porn. Their vulva should have the same basic parts as they might see on a poster in a doctor’s office, but they also shouldn’t worry if their proportions are not the same, unless the level of disproportion is causing a problem.

Complaining about your labia being too big is kind of like complaining that your dick’s too big.

This is completely untrue. Not only do labia and penises have completely different functions, a penis that is too big is not considered ‘ugly.’ The video was intended to make women feel more comfortable with their vulva (though, I don’t like the approach), even if it didn’t match a standard of beauty because someone, somewhere, decided that large labia are ugly and because some people seem to think that’s the only reason possible for a labiaplasty. Furthermore, if a penis is too big, there’s not much of a solution that doesn’t make it dysfunctional. If labia really are too big and someone rationally decides they need to have their labia reduced in size, then there are options for them that a person with a large penis doesn’t have.

I think that consumer culture makes a lot of money off of telling us that there are things that we can buy that will make us feel better about ourselves.

Making money off of something doesn’t make it innately evil. Also, there are things we can buy that make us feel better about ourselves. The wisdom in the purchase does not lie on if there is someone making money off of it or not, it is in if what we think we know about what we’re buying is really true. I feel better about myself after I take a shower with soap and water. Just because people make money off of the water for my shower and my soap, doesn’t mean that they’re bad. Of course, they’re motivated by money, but that is also not necessarily a great and evil thing, in itself. If someone makes money off of me addressing a medical issue, that, also, doesn’t mean that the person making money is evil for making money. It is only evil if I am deceived when I spend money for something that doesn’t accomplish what it claimed. That isn’t to say that greedy people don’t do evil things, that’s a whole other matter. There are greedy people who have done evil things that were made easier through capitalistic government (I say ‘capitalistic’ and not ‘capitalist’ because of the hazy nature of the definition of ‘capitalist’), this does not mean, though, that all economic decisions within a capitalistic society where decisions can be consumer-based are bad.

I feel it is important to point out that at the beginning of this video, there was a pitch for some websites. This is all well and good, but one of those sites has the specific purpose of selling things related to sex. This video, itself, is created along with the opportunity to sell things to make people feel better about themselves.

If you don’t love your body, that’s ok, but, you’re not going to love it any more if you start cutting pieces of it off.

This is not necessarily true. In reality, how happy someone is with the outcome of any procedure has more to do with their reasoning for the procedure and surrounding conditions. Studies on breast augmentation patients have shown a more positive attitude about their breasts post-surgery (the part that mentions the post-op breast attitudes is about half way down the page, most of the article highlights other issues with cosmetic surgery, which affects this discussion in both directions). The same study says that about half of those women still show signs of being aware of how their breasts look (as in, they still check themselves in the mirror and try to enhance the look of their breasts using their clothes), but the study doesn’t compare that number to behaviors of the general population (I wonder how many people who have tattoos check out how their tats look in the mirror). However, another study showed that people who have Body Dysmorphic Disorder don’t often have an improved body image when they undergo cosmetic surgery. Sadly, people have taken this study and related studies and ran with them, not recognizing that Body Dysmorphic Disorder only accounts for a certain percentage of cosmetic surgery patients. In other words, applying the results of that study to the general public is not just absurd, it is bad science. When we turn this issue over and look at it from the other side, we find this study, which shows us that body image issues have little influence on decisions about plastic surgery. In other words, people’s reasons for getting cosmetic surgeries are not because they hate themselves, somehow. There still needs to be more study in this area, but what we have so far seems to say that it is quite possible that cosmetic surgery can and does make some people feel better about their bodies, but that it might not have a positive effect on people who have severe body image issues related to conditions like Body Dysmorphic Disorder (and they don’t make up the largest portion of people obtaining cosmetic surgery).

There are major, major risks.

I will note that while the video says that, they only highlight one major risk that isn’t a concern for other cosmetic procedures. The risk they mention, the scar tissue, is only a concern if the woman gives birth to a child and it can be addressed easily through doctor-patient communication.**

At the 6:48 point in the video, there is the most awesome part of this video, ever. If that section was all that this video contained, I would think it was wonderful. I love that woman simply because she transformed from being all about one concern (that she needed more information about) to focusing on what really is a more important thing for women and that is open and honest and consensual sexual behavior. I don’t want to type out the transcript here because I really want you to go watch it. She lists a bunch of things that you can do with a vulva.

Nobody should make money off of your fears and self-hate.

That really depends on what your fears are about. Making money off of your self-hate would be a concern, but I already addressed the problem with equating labiaplasty with self-hate and I still think people should be ashamed of creating that association. Fears, though? There are entirely healthy reasons to spend money on protecting yourself from things you’re afraid of. In reality, that is something we should examine on a case by case basis. If I’m afraid of dying because I’m at risk for diabetes, it is entirely reasonable for me to spend money on things that will help me keep my body under control as long as I’m making sound, informed decisions. It is totally healthy, too, for me to buy condoms if I’m concerned about getting pregnant or a disease. There are fears that we should address and it is not immoral for others to make some money off of those fears if they’re offering me a way to avoid the thing I’m afraid of. Sometimes, those fears may be related to body image. It is wrong to demonize that and, as a result, risk excluding those who may make choices that are incongruent with some standard for decisions that someone sets because they dislike that people have an option for changing their body through surgery.

If there’s someone in your life who’s asking you to do this, you really need to consider what their role in your life is, because, they’re asking you to put your body at risk to have less sensitivity in one of your most sensitive areas. And, really, are they loving you for who you are? If they ask you to do this to cut off your labia, what else are they gonna ask you to do? When will it end?

Hello, slippery slope fallacy!

If someone is suggesting this surgery to a friend or loved one, it seems more rational to consider why the surgery is being suggested. When the surgery has been suggested to me, for example, it was because the doctors were concerned about discomfort. In reality, when considering a procedure like this, it is the health of the vulva and person as a whole that needs to be examined. Just because someone mentions this surgery doesn’t mean that they lack consideration for how sensitive you are for sex, sometimes there are other concerns that are worth considering. Also, I’ve looked pretty hard and not found a single study that has stated that other people are a major influence for this surgery other than a few that mention that girls who opt for this surgery are more frequently uncomfortable showing their vulva to their partner. I show off my vulva for part of my living and *I’m* uncomfortable showing my vulva to my partner (when I have one). That isn’t uncommon and that doesn’t mean that my partner or anyone else’s partner is pimping out this surgery to vulnerable women around the world. I’m not sure I understand why this part of the video commentary was included.

The risk of loss of sensation is not an entirely wrong thing to discuss. Sometimes, though, too much sensitivity in an area really can be a bad thing. Labia being sensitive was why getting mine pinched in my fishnets was so painful. It was a funny moment, in retrospect, but certainly not enjoyable. If someone’s labia are causing them discomfort, it is certainly the case that they should feel free to consider the cost and benefit of this procedure. It should be completely acceptable for them to weigh out the possibilities and some women are probably going to prefer losing some of their sensation so they’re not uncomfortable all the time because their labia gets caught in their jeans or something. Also, it isn’t as if they are completely cutting out all the nerve endings that they have in their vulva. I think that if we’re going to discuss and consider this procedure, it should be clear to the patient as well as the doctor what is gained and what is lost. Are they going to lose orgasms to this procedure? That’s unlikely unless the labia were their primary means of obtaining orgasm. Will they lose sensation? Yes, they probably will. Is it worth losing that sensation to make them more comfortable in some other way? That’s up to the patient to consider, not for everyone to campaign against and demonize.

I have no intention of getting a labiaplasty anytime soon. They’re expensive and I can tell by my own work that my labia function just fine. After 13 years, my urethra is in basically the same condition, so it doesn’t look like that will be operated on anytime soon, either. For now, my vulva is safe. If I decide that I want to change that someday, though, it will certainly be an informed decision and I hope that anyone else considering labiaplasty or any other medical decision, will also make sure that their decisions are well-informed and suitable for their own situation.

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I <3 my vulva.

*Heidi Anderson is the writer of The Fat One in the Middle and the internet mom of She Thought.

**Also note: I tried to find a plastic surgeon to ask a related question about solving this problem. Because different types of scars produce different mobility in the affected regions, I have to wonder if the cut and closure type could be altered in this procedure in order to make the affected region stretchier. Would it be possible to create a wavy incision (and, thus, closure) that could allow for more flexibility in the labia after the procedure? In my head, it would work almost like creating a curved cut and zig-zag stitch on stretchy fabric to keep from losing the fabric’s flexibility. I could be wrong, though, so I would really, really, really like some input from a cosmetic surgeon on this.

Yesterday, Heidi Anderson posted a link to this interview on her facebook:

Hijab, Niqab and Nothing

She commented that she was glad to hear their points of view, and I completely agree. It is important for us to see what is going on with some of these issues and that we are careful when we address them, so that we’re not stomping on the rights of others. I feel it is important, also, to address some of what was discussed in this interview, too, because there were opposing viewpoints and we need to analyze them so we can best form our ideas on how they relate to what is going on in the world. Right now, parts of Europe and Canada are dealing with political issues related to women wearing veils, with many people pressuring the government to make laws regarding things that cover the face. While the proposed laws are not specific, necessarily, to the nijab and hijab, it has been very clear throughout this movement that the purpose was to remove the veil from Muslim women. In order to offer the best insights and criticism that I can, I have transcribed the entire interview and included it in my response in the quote boxes. This allows you to see the context of what I am responding to.

From CBC television

Sumayyah: My name is Sumayyah Hussein, I’m 24 years old. I started wearing a hijab when I was a child, I can’t really remember when. And, uh, I wear it because I believe it is something that my creator wants for me and I also believe it is a benefit to myself.

Sonia: My name is Sonya Khan, I’m 32. I am originally from Botswana (?) and I don’t wear a nijab or a hijab.

Sheikha: Hello, my name is Sheikha El-Kathiri, I am 20 years old. I have been wearing the niqab for one year and I do it to please my creator and as part of completing my faith.

Throughout this post, I’m going to try not to address the religious aspect of this unless I feel it is important to the overall issue. I’m pretty open about being an atheist, so I naturally am going to disagree with their use of a headpiece in order to please a deity that I don’t think exists. Regardless, it is their right to do so and I will defend their right to do so as passionately as I would fight for my rights not to. Freedom is a two-way street and I don’t really mind if there’s a Ferrari or two going one way as I drive my Nash Rambler the other way. As long as they’re not running people over, we can share the road.

Reporter: Now, let me ask you, straight up, what most people would want to know is, why do you feel it’s necessary to hide your face?

Sheikha: By covering my face I’m honoring myself and I’m presenting myself to the world um, as a sum of my character, as a sum of my personality, my contribution toward society, and, um, it’s just a little bit that I’m doing to enable me to go through this pass, eh, path of spiritual discovery. And it’s something that I really feel glad and happy and I feel so wonderful for having done it. And it’s just a spiritual choice.

I can identify with this. Feeling wonderful is precisely why I do the things that I do as well.

Reporter: Why do you feel ‘wonderful’ for having done it?

Sheikha: It just exemplifies the fact that I’m an honored muslim woman, I am an honorable woman who has her own opinions, she has her own voice, I have my own personality, I have my character, I have everything that’s wonderful about me, the way I contribute to society, and, um, my beauty is a wonderful part of me, as well, but I don’t feel that I have to display it all for the world.

I think that we along with our peers decide if we are honorable or not. If I feel like I am an honorable person because I remembered to buy my friend a soda when I promised, then that’s good for me. This isn’t to say that we can’t mislabel ourselves as honorable, that does, apparently, happen. Many horrible people in history have considered themselves to be honorable when they were absolutely evil people. However, those examples don’t really take away from people who give themselves the label for other reasons. So, wearing her veil is a way that she tells the world that she is honorable. As long as her other actions are consistent, I have no problem with this.

I remember when I was growing up and we had to maintain a certain level of modesty because of our religion. I truly felt that if what I had been taught were true, then I was a better person for covering myself up. I did want to fit in with my peers, but I didn’t, because I wanted to be the best person I could be. I was sad when I discovered that what I once thought were true could not possibly be. I think the experience, though, allows me to understand where women come from when they adhere to dress codes brought about by religious ideas.

I think it is important that Sheikha’s perspective be shared with the world in a way that they understand, though, because I’m pretty sure most people don’t. You know how people chastise women for showing too much? In our culture, even now, we hold each other to a certain standard regarding our dress. We claim that showing one’s vulva is an act of intimacy that should only be done with certain people and that the more people we show our vulva to, the less of a person we are. It is a very silly thing to think, objectively, but people don’t really look at these things objectively. Furthermore, many women shy away from showing their bodies off. Many women refuse to show cleavage, even, much less breasts and vulva, because they’re simply not comfortable and they want to reserve those parts of themselves for someone more specific. Sheikha’s line of thinking is really not that much different, she’s just included more body parts.

Reporter: Is that the function of the hijab, when you wear it?

Sumayyah: It’s basically a message that says that ‘I would like you to judge me based on who I am and what I do and it’s not based on you know, the way, the way I look.’ And, uh, it’s, I mean people may not like that, but, it is a fact that men and women are perceived differently.

Sheikha and Sumayyah, I felt, were the ones with the best points to make in this discussion. If this is really their message with their attire, there is very little to even complain about.

I will say that I think this approach to addressing the problem of judgment is not very helpful. If my goal is to change the way people think about me, to get people to measure me by acts and not just looks, would it not be more helpful to help them learn to look past looks instead of hiding from them? That is my way of dealing with the same problem, but I can see how other people may take a different approach.

Sheikha: If I wasn’t wearing the veil, for example, to me, a-a-a, a man coming up to me and just chatting me up, ah, might be normal, but to me, I might not like that.

Out of all the reasons I have ever seen for someone covering themselves up, not wanting someone to talk to you has probably got to be the most rational. It probably helps, to an extent. I would guess that, given male sexual response patterns, some men will still get chatty and the veil isn’t going to stop them. I hope there is a back up plan for this girl.

Reporter: I’m interested in the concept of, of, it’s, it’s to make men behave better toward you. Is that what I’m hearing?

Sheikha: My covering does not exempt a man from his responsibility, as a man, to behave himself, as you say; to conduct himself in a morally befitting manner. Just because I cover myself doesn’t mean I’m doing it to make his job easier.

I like how, in the interview, the emotions of this woman are so effectively conveyed through what she says and her tone. The veil is there, but her communication is more effective at this moment than at any other time. She is entirely right, of course. Oftentimes, the veil is defended as something that is used to keep men at bay, but it is clear that none of these women feel that this is the case. I can also see how such an accusation would be harmful to women, overall. It is just as bad to consider that the niqab and hijab are factors with a relationship to sexual crime and aggression from men as it is to consider scantily clad women to be a factor with the same relationship. Just as a woman dressed in a bikini is not asking for someone to violate them, a hijab or niqab isn’t a man’s sexual babysitter.

Reporter: Let me put to you what Jack Straw actually said, he said, “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance meetings between strangers, people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day together. That’s made more difficult if people are wearing a veil, that’s just a fact of life.”

I think the only thing that can be concluded from this is that Jack Straw is socially inept. People are very good at communication, in a variety of ways. We use body language and posture, tone of voice and word choices. If communication is restricted in one way, we are able to compensate. If Mr. Straw has a problem with communication in this context, he’s the one who needs to worry about coping.

Sheikha: Uh, I don’t agree with that, at all. I don’t feel that just because I cover my face, why is that a barrier for you to treat me as a human being? To, uh, relate to me as a human being, as somebody with opinions, with personality, with things that they can bring to the table?

I like Sheikha. I think her statement here applies universally. It doesn’t matter what you wear, your attire should not be a barrier to other people treating you like a human being. There is no reason for people to be treated poorly based on what they do or do not put on their faces or their bodies.

Sumayyah: You know, Muslim women who, who choose to dress this way, do that because they feel, you know, cover this way, first of all, because they believe that God wants that of them and they believe that God is, God knows better for them than they know.

Sonya: Does it say in the Quran that you’re suppsoed to wear a hijab? I, I don’t think …

Samayyah [talking over Sonya]: Yes, it does, it does, it does, she just read it.

Sonia: … it says, directly, you have to wear a hijab. I don’t think that is a clear statement or understanding but a lot of, uh, I think philosophers of Islam, Scholars, are saying, ‘this is exactly what you need to wear.’ There is no clear understanding on that matter. So, …

Samayyah [talking over Sonya]: I think there is a clear understanding, there’s a very clear understanding.

Sonia: if you rethink, there’s literally? You’ll read all scholars saying the same thing? I disagree.

Samayyah: No, I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that …

Sonia: A lot of scholars will say dress [unintelligible].

Samayyah: … but there is, there is, there is a majority and a minority.

I’m happy that, for all of the editing, this little exchange was left in the interview. Religions have a tendency to evolve and change within a culture, as does the interpretation of religious doctrine. I dislike that someone feels that they can’t know what is best for themselves or themselves in relation to those around them, I think that concept is a hindrance to human development. My opinion, though, shouldn’t matter to the bigger issue. Instead, each of these women’s rights is far more important than my stance on how they get there.

Reporter: But the face can be open, there’s nothing wrong with that?

Samayyah: The face is not necessary.

Reporter: Do you believe that?

Sheikha: Um, yeah, I wasn’t wearing it before and now I am. Um, other peep, there are people who do believe that the face is obligatory. But, I think that, it’s their choice, in the end.

Reporter: Sonia, what do you think the message is when you see a veiled woman.

Sonia: [unintelligible] question. OK, I’m living in Canada, I’m wearing a hijab, I’m covering up my face. Am I going to be someone who will bring people together, Jews, Christians, Muslims? I don’t think so. Am I going to be the one who will be a philosopher bringing new ideas to the table, actually getting people to get involved in the community? I think you’ll create more barriers. It’s not you, it’s them. It’s, as in, the people around you. Their stereotypes, their perceived notions. All I’m saying is, as a Muslim, you’re a missionary at heart. You’re supposed to actually attract people towards you, not repel them.

I know many people will disagree with me, but I dislike Sonia’s take on this. If someone else sees the hijab as a barrier and doesn’t think these women can contribute to society, then they are the ones with the problem that needs fixed. Sheikha has already shown that she can speak intelligently about her beliefs, no matter how others feel about them. I may disagree, but I can at least see that, based on what she has said here, she’s not likely to use her beliefs to interfere with others. I’m one-fucking-hundred percent cool with that.

Reporter: Well, let me bring this to you, and this is the English translation, not the Quran, “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom.” Is that, are you not being faithful to the Quran?

Sonia [interrupting]: Yes, It does not say to cover any particular part except for the bosom. So, I think it is about the humility of it and there’s no, um, kind of implication of what, exactly, what [unintelligible] do you need to wear. We need to integrate, we need to assimilate, and we need to be able to move from one culture to the other without looking like something out of a different era.

The world would be a terribly boring place if we were all the same. I don’t want to see Muslim women get rid of their veils because they want to assimilate or because the law tells them to. If Muslim women get rid of their veils, I want it to be because they have reached rational conclusions about their faith and their world that lets them feel free to uncover their face and exist, without guilt, free of a veil. If they feel that their freedom is best exercised with a veil, then let them have it. What matters most is not that they look like everyone else.

Sheikha: I don’t think it creates any barriers. I don’t think you have to assimilate in all ways, I think you should assimilate in, in um, the basic human ways of goodness and helping others, but you shouldn’t have to assimilate in your dress because, what is dress? It’s just superficial.

I only partly agree with Sheikha, here. Dress is superficial, yes. We are the same person no matter if we are wearing clothes or not. However, our clothes are a way in which we tell the world about ourselves. Our clothes are an expression. Just as her clothes are her way of telling the world she is “an honored Muslim woman,” my clothes are my way of telling the world that I’m … I’m … eh … not like most other people.

Sonia [interrupting]: No, it’s not. People always percieve you by what you wear. No one, I’m not talking about your communication, for example, if I’m non-muslim, I will judge you, I will put a label on you, and I’ll walk away because how …

Sumayyah [interrupting]: How’s that, how’s that our fault, though?

Sonia: It’s not your fault, but I think the world has changed and as a Muslim, you need to represent Islam as an encompassing thing, not an exclusionary thing. You’re excluding people, in your world.

I want to like Sonia, but I’ve got such mixed feelings about her. I think her intentions are good, but her reasoning is bad and leads to poor conclusions. What we wear does not make us exclude people. If I put a bow on my head, if I wear fishnets, if I dress in a manner that is not congruent with the modest world, I’m not excluding people. If I do those things, though, others may avoid me. It is they who are being exclusive. The same goes for when Sheikha wears her veil. She’s not the one who is excluding people by wearing her veil. It is those who have been conditioned to see her as an outsider who are being exclusive. It is not Sheikha’s responsibility to compensate for those people. She can, however, be an example to them and teach them that her veil is not what represents her, as a person. It is simply one thing she uses to express herself.

Reporter: Sumayyah, you want to say something to that?

Sumayyah: I think you need to give people a little bit more credit, like, people are really, they’re not that stupid. Like, I mean …

Reporter: You mean the public at large?

Sumayyah: Yeah, just because someone is covered up a certain way, it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to see them as someone that is completely weird.

Reporter: But is there discomfort, can you feel discomfort from people who are not Muslim, who don’t understand?

Sumayyah: If I meet someone who doesn’t know anything at all about Islam, and has no stereotypes, they’re going to be very friendly with me. It’s the baggage and it’s the stereotypes that make people, you know, defensive and prejudiced and so on. I know people are walking, looking at me, don’t agree with me, that’s totally acceptable.

Reporter: How do you know?

Sumayyah: I know, because I know, that the, the way that they look at me.

Reporter: How do they look at you?

Sumayyah: OK, there are a few people who give dirty looks and stuff like that, I’m used to it. Most people are just, they’re just curious, they don’t know, you know, which is fine, too, I wish they would come ask me, I would love to explain it.

I think that Sumayyah’s suggestion is a good idea. Open communication between two groups, without conflict, is a great way for the two groups to learn from each other. I would imagine that as long as people weren’t trying to strip Sumayyah of her identity, she’s be happy to help break down barriers that exist between her and others. The same goes for whoever she’s interacting with. We often miss out on helping people better themselves by trying to break down the parts of them that we choose. Instead of working toward peace, itself, we bypass that goal and aim for the things people most closely identify themselves with. I may not like the principals taught by Sumayyah’s religion, but I can appreciate that she wants to break down barriers and wants peace. Peace is a great goal to have.

Reporter: Essentially, what Jack Straw was saying, and a lot of people are saying, now, you know, ‘how can I trust you, how can I get a feel for what you’re saying, if I can’t see the entirity of your face?’

Sheikha: Well, let me ask you a question, how do you get a feel for what somebody’s saying when you talk to them on the phone? And we use telephones, like, constantly nowadays, people use the internet.

Sheikha said this perfectly. I have nothing more to add. Neither does the reporter.

Reporter: Do you believe you’re equal to a man?

This question kinda came out of nowhere. Earlier, there were related questions about the behavior of men toward women. The reporter seems to be scratching at equal rights issues and trying to tie them to the issue of the veil. I think this misses the point. If you want to talk about Muslims and Women’s rights issues, you need to talk to the women dealing with the actual Women’s rights issues. If these women don’t feel they’re facing those issues, there’s no point in confronting them over it, especially since they were there to talk about their veil.

Sheikha: Oh, the thing is that, I do believe I’m equal to, to a man.

Sonia [interrupting]: Why don’t men wear the same, kind of, equivalent? If men are equal to women …

This is a fantastic question. I really wish they had put it in a more appropriate place or if it were asked in a less confrontational manner. How about, what is the purpose of the attire that women are asked to wear and men are asked to wear? There are some obvious responses that can be given to this question, as well. Compare this question to why women have to wear shirts, in most western cultures, and men do not. Why is that? Until we have perfected our justification, we’re just being hypocrites by using that as a weapon. Yes, women and men are treated differently in what they have to wear based on instruction by their religion. Sadly, Western society also treats men and women differently based on what society says we can wear. Part of that is due to sexual signaling in breasts. We can’t help that, though, and women’s lips are also a source of mild sexual signaling when they become redder during arousal and we don’t cover them. That being said, these differences in how women are treated are very likely a symptom of a greater problem, and not the problem itself.

Reporter [interrupting]: Why is that? What does, why do you think that is that men are not required, presumably, God, we can all agree on this, God made all of us. He made your face, my face, a man’s face. Why would he require a woman to cover some aspect of herself and not a man?

I’m guessing that the reporter is guilty of compartmentalization. She doesn’t connect the issue she’s addressing with the one that already exists and affects her own clothing choices. Sumayyah gives a good, relevant response:

Sumayyah: Covering yourself is, is something that’s natural to us, we cover parts of ourself that we think is not for public consumption. And if people differ on what that modesty is, I that’s totally fine and honest about you and I don’t have a problem with it. And, the issue with equality and dress, I mean, men, men also have their, their own, their own dress code that they, they can’t just, they can’t just you know, walk around wearing whatever they want.

Reporter: So, if Jack Straw, were, if you were in his office, and he said, “Would you mind removing the veil so I could talk to you, in the presence of another woman?” What would you, what would you say?

Sheikha: I would say, ‘I do mind, why does it bother you, that I have to remove it in front of you. Can’t you communicate with me as a normal human being? I don’t think that, um, the fact that I’m wearing a veil prevents you from communicating with me, as a normal human being, in a normal way. Um, and, I don’t see why you have to, um, get me to do this thing, to take off my veil. Perhaps, from you, it’s something you feel strongly about you, you want me to do it for your comfort, your own benefit. But, I don’t think it really is bothering you, I don’t think it is. And it definately doesn’t bother me.

It is perhaps a little unfair for her to claim it doesn’t really bother Straw. I think it probably does bother him. However, if this encounter with straw really did happen, it would be Jack Straw’s issue to deal with, not Sheikha’s. Jack has no right to interfere with other people when he’s simply uncomfortable.

Reporter: Sonia, your last word, what do you think about the issue of veils and when someone is fully veiled?

Sonia: I think it’s, it’s, time to question things in life, it’s time to think of ourselves, not as ‘me,’ but as a community based on our responsibility as Muslims in the Western world. I think we need to just be more responsible, to actually improve the image of Islam and be more integrated.

I can agree with everything that she said with the exception of the very last part. Muslims don’t need to integrate to make themselves better or to make the image of themselves better. Stressing peace, love and charity to others in whatever garb they happen to feel comfortable in would help us all tremendously. I can’t imagine it would be easy to be a peaceful person from a religion who is the most readily associated with the most violent religious act in recent history. That’s a tough image to change. It also doesn’t help that, even now, their peers in their own religion are threatening people’s lives over things as simple as drawings. In order to counteract that problem, we need to see lots more Muslims openly representing peace and fighting against their fellow Muslims who are advocates of violence and we need those Muslims to be much, much louder than their violent peers.

I should admit, here, that I dislike dogmatic religions, that makes writing this response much harder than it might otherwise have been. I would not shed a tear if Islam itself faded away into the ether. That, however, doesn’t mean that the followers of Islam will leave religion entirely or that they will give up damaging dogma. Dogma that harms us doesn’t have to be from religion and religions have a terrible habit of replacing each other. Thus, I admit here, my bias may be my disability in viewing these issues.

Reporter: Sumayyah, what do you think?

Sumayyah: Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous to say that people have a bad image of Islam because of the way that people look, because someone has a long beard or someone’s covering her head, or even her face.

I find myself rooting more for Sheikha and Sumayyah during this interview than for Sonia. I agree with Sumayyah, here, it is ridiculous. Sadly, some people do have a bad image of Islam because of the way people look. To blame Islam for that, though, is pretty ignorant. I can’t blame my neighbor for me seeing them differently for them wearing long, polyester leisure suits while I like to wear short skirts and fishnets anymore than society should blame Islam for us being biased against the veil.

Reporter: And that stereotypical connection may come up in what you’re wearing?

Sumayyah: Exactly, but the fact that, the fact that there’s a stereotype doesn’t mean that I have to give up what I believe. If I believe something is right, I’m gonna do it. You know, I think that people need to accept the fact that people differ, you know, their opinions are different. They’re going to believe different things, they’re gonna think that, you know, something is better for me, or, you know, another person will disagree. I mean, honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is.

I think it is important to note, here, that having different beliefs are fine as long as those beliefs aren’t causing someone to behave in a way that harms others. I agree that people need to accept the differences between themselves and others. However, sometimes those differences really are harmful. When those differences are harmful, that’s when we can step in and criticize and try to do something about it. For example, I like that there is a movement to defend Freedom of Speech against Muslims who want to silence those who draw figures of Muhummad. That defense is important, regardless of if others are offended. At the same time, I’m also glad that this interview has been done so that Muslim women can defend their right to wear the veil in a society that threatens to ban them from wearing it in many situations. Each fight is equally important and it is differing belief systems that have created the need for them.

Sheikha: My priorities, in life, are different than someone else because my priority is spiritual first and foremost. And also, um, when I cover, my, I-I’m perfectly, uh, fine with myself, like I, I’m not ashamed of myself. I have very high self-esteem, and I’m fine with the way I look, I’m fine with my body, and, um, I just think that if I’m fine with it, then, everyone else shouldn’t feel badly towards me. I understand your concern, and I’m very, um, you know, I thank you for your concern, if anybody is concerned, but I’m fine.

Reporter: I want to thank you all, very much, for coming in and talking, and I’m sure you’re all very anxious to break the fast, today, and go eat.

Yeah, I want chocolate.

While I was gone at TAM8, I assumed I would come back and write about what happened at TAM8. However, it turns out that stuff was happening while I was busy that warrant some discussion more so than me rocking out with famous skeptics (not that famous skeptics don’t deserve discussion). If you need to know what happened during TAM, other skeptics did a better job of covering that. I am considering writing about the ‘don’t be a dick’ theme that was covered, but that has to wait until after this somewhat big issue, and one that warrants a more serious discussion than what some of you are used to seeing from me.

So what is the big deal? ScienceBlogs lost a bunch of bloggers in a scandal. I really wish I could have weighed in on this as it was happening, but my life was focused elsewhere. So, in a scandal that would eventually be called “Pepsigate” and then “The Pepsipocalypse,” scienceblogs attempted to create new opportunities for themselves by allowing bloggers who represent Pepsi to have blogspace on their site with the same standing as the other science bloggers. Pepsi’s presence on the site would have been focused on food science, allegedly.

The other bloggers on scienceblogs, for those of you who don’t know how this works, got to where they were because of their hard work in science and maintaining their credibility. Pepsi just forked over some money.  Naturally, some of the major science blogopoly players were a bit miffed, so they packed their bags and left the party. Pepsigate, though, was over before I even found out about it, but has left in its wake a lot of questions that need answered.

First, perhaps we should address the ones that Adam Bly of ScienceBlogs presented with the announcement that they killed the Pepsi blog in the wake of the controversy.

How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage?

I’m not going to claim that pepsigate was going to be a fair answer to any of these questions, it wasn’t. And I can’t justify arguing against what the agreement was in the first place because I think some reasonable compromises could have been reached. However, with so many casualties in this controversy, happening so fast, I can’t blame SB for quickly trying to undo their mistake. (And, yes, just like the rest of us, even the great minds at SB can wish for an ‘undo’ button on life).

Top scientists working in any industry may have trouble trying to make the right decisions, ethically, and make changes from within that will improve their world and the businesses that they work for. Scientists in a bigger corporation, like Pepsi, may face more complicated issues because they’re weighing problems regarding public health against their income that is based on them helping a product sell. That doesn’t keep them from helping, though, even if they’re pressured into it.

Back in the day, so long ago that I can’t remember the exact dates (but before I was first in college) Coca Cola made some agreements with schools so that they could help with school lunch programs at thousands of elementary schools across the country. Alongside that, they (and Pepsi) put vending machines in schools that were accessible by students. Naturally, this created something of an uproar, which got louder as issues over childhood obesity became more apparent. Governments, becoming more aware because of the outcry, began trying to modify laws to force schools to turn off their vending machines, or at least move them to a place where the kiddies weren’t going to be sucking food out of them. As this happened, companies began focusing on other ways to both promote themselves and abide by laws. Coca-cola created scholarship programs and places like Domino’s began offering alternate foods that were healthier to the school lunch program. It didn’t end there, though. Suddenly, there was a surge in efforts by some companies that saw the potential to lose customers to the new health awareness to improve what selections they were offering to consumers. Alongside the growing health concern, Olestra and Splenda were born (the former then facing a problem of its own due to side-effects) and gained extra publicity because of the excitement. While these developments still haven’t completely solved all the problems they needed to, childhood obesity is still a problem, there are still unhealthy foods offered to children in schools and reasonable healthy foods haven’t been made cheaply enough to be readily available to those who most need them; at least these developments are heading in the right direction and the pressure applied to the food industry has helped tremendously.

This doesn’t really offer us much to use in light of Pepsigate except to tell us that we can have an influence on corporations that lead to better things as long as we are loud enough and can influence their customers. Something worth considering with Pepsi, since they clearly want to be involved with SB, is to ask them to create their own blog worthy of being addressed by the bloggers of SB. This encourages them to actually do something significant without SB compromising their credibility and it opens communication lines.

Another thing we can do to help scientists working for large industries is simply, give them information. The more information we turn out that is related to their work, the more tools they have to influence the industry from within. Since education was/is a motivating factor at ScienceBlogs, this is not a difficult task. Basically, just get bigger so you can provide more science.

There is a ‘however’ to put in that paragraph, somewhere, but for the sake of clarity, I’m putting it here, instead. General communication to the masses is sometimes not effective in getting a message the most important people. Thus, establishing correspondence with people who are important to your goal is also something worth considering. Letting Pepsi have space on ScienceBlogs itself may have been a bad idea, but what if we could get Pepsi to open communication directly with some of the best bloggers? On a grander scale, why not create some communication links between food scientists and CEOs at Pepsi (and other major companies) and outside scientists (like SB science bloggers) that can allow for some mutually beneficial communication? With such an arrangement, the public gets to learn more about the corporations and the corporations get to gain from new insights that are more objective. I can’t imagine that it would take a great effort to invite, say, Coturnix or Orac to visit food labs and see what happens there (assuming the invitations would be accepted). Questions for the companies could be collected by the bloggers from their communities so that each visit could have a direction or goal.

I don’t believe that the agreement between ScienceBlogs and Pepsi was truly intended to compromise the integrity of SB. I think that this conflict can possibly teach us something and that it is the duty of SB to use it to their advantage in order to develop into an improved voice of science and reason that addresses important issues related to, in this case, the food industry and perhaps even spreading to other industries as well.

Note: All that being said, my voice in this community is rather small. Thus, please share.

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