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When sexting isn’t

There’s some disconcerting news about of late.  Trigger warnings for rape, slut shaming, and general high school intolerability.  Links here and here.

Both articles are about teenage girls who were — allegedly, right — sexually assaulted, were photographed by their assailants, had to face the humiliation of those photos spreading through their schools and communities, and subsequently committed suicide.  The second article goes into more detail about how the victim was treated by her peers (atrociously) and tells how in that case the police did not press charges against the assailants.

So, firstly, this is horrifying, and a call to action.  However, as I’m not sure what action it makes sense to take (Dan Savage suggests forbidding teenagers from having cell phone cameras, but that may be an overreaction) I’ll do my best to improve understanding of the situation instead.

What makes these stories stand out (neither sexual assault nor suicide being nearly as uncommon as they should be) is the “sexting”, the spreading of the photos of the assaults. So, what’s up with the sexting?  Is it a minor detail?  Something that amplifies the pain of the assaults?  Or is it harmful on its own?

There’s some rather extreme stigma surrounding sex in our culture, especially so for teenage girls.  Girls are shamed for sex they choose to have, especially if it’s outside of social norms (eg, hookup rather than relationship sex.)  As irrational as it sounds, it’s not unusual for rape, assault and abuse victims to feel shame for what was done to them.   So, the shame from being raped can be amplified by others knowing about the rape.

But this applies to consensual sex too: someone who voluntarily, consensually has sex who then has pictures of the sex distributed without consent is also going to be humiliated and shamed and generally discomfited by the experience (although probably not as much as if the original encounter was consensual.)

So now I’m thinking about what a sex act is, and what sexual assault is.  Sex acts don’t always involve physical contact — phone sex can be sex, cybersex can be sex, exhibitionism can be sex.  The reason people (of any age) swap sexy photos with people they’re interested in is because it is a sexual act — perhaps more like French kissing than intercourse, but still a sexual act.

Which means if it’s not consensual, it’s sexual assault.

That fits intuitively — when I empathize with the girls in the articles, the exposure of having the photos distributed is uncomfortable to me in a similar way to the rape itself.

And that’s why the word “sexting” is problematic: because “sexting” comes from “sex”, and sex is consensual.  If it’s not consensual it’s rape.

I think at this juncture it would be helpful to have a linguistic — and legal — distinction between consensual sexting (sexting that the object of the photo does herself/himself/themselves or actively agrees to) and nonconsensual “sexting”.  Rape texting, perhaps.

Because as far as I can tell, currently the only thing the teenage boys in both cases can be charged with (if there’s not enough evidence for the direct assault) is child pornography.  But that ignores the consent distinction, and it does not cover similar situations for adults.  Like Tyler Clementi, who was after all 18.  Sharing sexual photos of a person without his or her permission is a sexual act, it affects the person, and especially for teenagers as we see it can have devastating consequences. It is wrong; I think there are completely reasonable grounds for it to be illegal as well.


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Pretty self-evident, I think.  But in case it’s not:

1. Wealth is not evenly distributed in the world we live in, either within nations or among them.

I take it as given that this is a bad thing.

Specifically, the poverty created by this imbalance of wealth is inherently unjust.  Injustices include worse nutrition and lack of health care, having one’s neighborhood being a dumping ground for pollutants that wealthier people won’t allow in their neighborhoods (or countries), a criminal justice system that is biased against people who can’t afford lawyers or lobbyists, predatory lending … this is not meant to be an inclusive list, just what I could think of off the top of my head.  By injustices, I mean that while part of the suffering of poverty is only in contrast to people who have more, part of the suffering of poverty has to do with wealthier people reaping the benefits of technological progress, imperialism, and the unprecedentedly rapid consumption of natural resources, while poor people pay the costs.  Poverty is not simply an absence of wealth.

2. People who have more wealth often have different interests than people with fewer resources; in particular, people who have more wealth will often act to protect that wealth.

3.  This has nothing to do with charity; charity ameliorates some of the immediate suffering of hunger, poverty, etc, but does nothing to change the underlying structure that creates hunger, poverty, etc.  Getting wealthy and middle-class people to give to charity is relatively easy; getting wealthy and middle-class people to even the system out is much harder.

4. The ability to create change, or to prevent change, is tied to the amount of resources, especially financial resources, that a group of people have access to.

5. Problem in summary: Any attempt to increase the wellbeing of those in poverty at the expense of those with wealth is always going to be handicapped.  Likewise, any attempt to increase the imbalance of wealth will be aided by the simple fact that the people who want that to happen have more power to make it happen, and the people who don’t want it to happen have less power to prevent it.

6. Solutions: The only ways to get people with more resources to help people with fewer are if the wealthier believe that a more equal society is in their best interest, or if they think that while it’s not in their personal best interest it is a greater good that is worth sacrificing some of their comfort for.

7. Or find ways of creating change that don’t rest on having money.

Sex and models of consent; more questions than answers

One of the things that makes any attempt to change human sexual behavior so difficult, is the extreme disconnect that already exists between how people think they should behave sexually, and how they actually do.  (Look at all the people, for instance, who carry on affairs outside of supposedly monogamous relationships.  Or then, look at the outrage Sandra Fluke attracted.  You’d almost think that adults having sex with other adults was an unusual thing.)

What this means is that any attempt to change people’s sexual behavior (from the left or the right or wherever) runs headlong into this problem: even if it succeeds in changing people’s idea of how they should act, how people say they will behave, perhaps even how they say they do behave, it may not affect what people actually do at all.

Me, I’m interested in consent.  I think rape is bad (there’s a daring and controversial position, right?)  I think that being pressured into something you’re not sure you want to do is bad.  I think that two people going ahead and doing something when they’re drunk/high/swept away in the heat of passion, that they wouldn’t do if they’d thought about it clearly first, is probably a bad idea even if it’s otherwise consensual.  Basically, I’m in favor of sex that doesn’t cause harm.  Sex that’s mutually respectful and where both people are mindful of the potential harm to their future selves.

And nobody really disagrees with that, at least not in situations where they’re careful what they say (school?  a workplace sexual harassment training?) 

And we have stories where the hero sneaks into the heroine’s bedroom and watches her sleep, without her knowledge, and this is called romantic.

And we have a culture where most rapes don’t get reported, especially when the perpetrator knows the victim and relies on alcohol or drugs rather than physical force.

Yesterday there was a letter to Dear Abby from a woman asking whether, in a long-term sexual relationship, attempting to have sex with a sleeping partner is a problem.  

And many anti-rape activists point out that the burden of preventing rape should not be put entirely on the shoulders of the potential victims, as it so often is, but rather on the culture as a whole.  And it should be.  As a culture we should rewrite our stories that say that knowing what to do sexually without saying a word is romantic and talking about it is unsexy; we should talk about sex more so that everybody knows what healthy sex looks and feels like; we should give support to people who have been raped who speak up about it.

What I am concerned about is the question of how to talk about consent without making it another ideal that people ascribe to in theory and ignore in practice.

Then again, maybe that’s not a bad thing?  In sports, everyone always talks about the value of being a good sport, and how it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  And yet you see bad sports everywhere.  Perhaps this is because wanting to win is human nature and we need the value of good sportsmanship for people to have a chance of being decent to each other in the face of that natural drive.  

I don’t know; this is more of a question than an answer.  Part of me thinks that it’s different with sexuality: it’s not a matter of necessary ethical ideals combatting base human nature, but rather a problem of unhealthy and unrealistic (and unnecessary) expectations.  


…which is blogging about blogging, right?  I’ve noticed that, whatever I might be interested in writing at other times, once I think about posting to a blog my mind goes blank and I turn into the internet equivalent of the person who wave at the camera and say “Look!  We’re on TV!”  And I know exactly how uninteresting that is to read.  So I will try again with something that might actually be interesting, but which is at least not about the experience of blogging, and may end up deleting this post later.

By the way, for now I am aiming to update twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.


Well. I wrote three potential blog posts over a month ago in December.  I decided I wanted my blog to be high-quality: carefully proofread for concision and quality as well as spelling and grammar.  It’s now the end of the third week in January.  Since I would rather have a lower-quality blog than none at all (an admittedly questionable choice, of course) from now on I’m just going to post, no waiting period, no editing beyond spellcheck.

On Saving the World


To paraphrase from Days of War, Nights of Love: This blog will not save your life.

Well, obviously.  So why did I say it?

This blog will not save the world.

That’s obvious to.  As much as I love the stories about the Good Guy riding into town or sweeping in with a primary-color cape and mask and Saving The Day, actually transforming the world on a scope vast enough to be considered “saving” it is not entirely realistic.  Not for one person, one blog.

The problems we’re dealing with — I’m thinking mostly the threat of environmental collapse, but that’s hardly the only problem of significance facing humankind today — were not and are not created by one person.  And they will not be solved by one person, or one website.

I don’t like hype.

I don’t like fatalism, either.

There is a middle ground, the ground of one person’s worth of difference, or one organization’s worth of difference.  There is also the difference of many people coming together for change — as in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, for instance.

If this blog reminds one person that they care about the planet, and gets that one person to, I don’t know, start a compost bin in their back yard or switch to a low-flow shower head or go vegetarian or whatever, then this blog will have been worth it.  (To the extent that this blog reminds me to be environmentally conscious in my daily life, it’s already worth it.)  If this blog causes one person to see the world in a somewhat different way than before, it will have been worth it.  If this blog is found by one activist on the verge of burnout and inspires that one person to keep fighting anyway, if this blog turns even one person’s despair to hope, then this blog is worth it.  I can always hope that far more than one person will be affected, but one person is still a difference.  One person counts.

After all — every molecule of excess human-caused carbon dioxide in the air ultimately got there through the driving or electricity use or whatever of one person.  Every tree that gets cut down in the Amazon rainforest to raise cows and every tree that gets cut down in Indonesia for palm oil could, if we had absolute knowledge, be traced back to the hamburgers and supermarket cookies that were, every one of them, each eaten by an individual person.  What I’m saying, is the harm that has been caused to the planet is the cumulative impact of individual actions by individual people.  (Not individual people working alone, of course; individual people working together.)  If individual, mortal, flawed humans caused this impending catastrophe one fast-food meal at a time, we can slow the momentum of the catastrophe in exactly the same way.

It starts with an idea, a story.  There are ideas behind the destruction of the planet: the idea that humans are separate from nature, the idea that we should “conquer” it, the ideas that progress is both good and inevitable.  The idea that we can and should grow without limits.  We got here with ideas; we can get out with different ideas.  The idea that the Earth is valuable, not just as a collection of resources, but as it is.  The idea that we need to keep the wellbeing of future generations in mind.  The idea that growth is limited.

People who believe the idea join together — there is learning to organize effectively, there is finding funding, there is learning to live with and work with people we may not like personally.  There is putting organizational goals over personal conflicts.  This creates effective organizations, and a movement.

It is a hard process.  It won’t happen overnight.  It certainly won’t happen from this blog alone — but it doesn’t have to.  Because this blog isn’t the only site these ideas are being shared.  Because as alone as you might feel right now, there are others who feel the same way, and more of us all the time.  I can’t save the world.  You can’t save the world.  But I can save a piece, and you can save a piece, and when we work together we can save a larger piece.  When enough of us are working together for the same goal, each of us doing what we can, we can stop the train that’s driving us all off the cliff edge.  It must be possible.  After all, we’re the ones who started it.

New Moon, New Beginning

Five minutes ago I looked out the window and saw the new moon.  Going by the width of the crescent, this isn’t the first day of the new moon, but it is the first day I saw it, so for me it’s a new moon.

It’s a good omen.  Not that I believe in anything as thoroughly irrational as omens, naturally.  But if I were to believe in omens, this would be a good one.  The new moon that’s closest to the start of the new solar year.  A time for reflection, for stories, and for new beginnings.

When I started paying attention to the cycles of the moon — I didn’t always — I noticed something odd happening.  I got so used to seeing a crescent or a gibbous moon shining strikingly in the night or daytime sky, or the full moon in all its glory, that whenever I went for a few days at a time without seeing the moon, I would feel sad and off-center, like I was missing something.  Or like a loved one was far away.  Usually this was during the last few days of the waning moon.  And then the new moon would come back, curving right rather than left, shining in the evening rather than the morning (which because I’m a night owl meant I was far more likely to see it) and it felt like an old friend returning, and everything was right again.

Does paying attention to the natural world matter?  In a sense, it doesn’t — by itself, observing the new moon doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions, or prevent habitat loss and species extinction, or neutralize water pollution.  (As I write, the moon appears to be turning on its side as it’s about to set.  The “horns” of the crescent always point away from the sun.  When the moon is a crescent, it is actually in the sky mostly during the day rather than during the night.  So right now, it is the start of the night, but the moon is setting.)  People who want to act to protect the environment can take action with very little knowledge of the environment in general, let alone the bioregion they live in.

But that is precisely where the two problems are: firstly, that people who are disconnected from the natural world (from rivers and springs and sparrows and spiders and the moon and the sun and the stars, from sunshine and drizzly rain and sharp lightning storms) are less likely to want to protect the environment, let alone be willing to make major sacrifices for it.  And secondly, someone’s got to know what they’re doing.  We live in a world of abstractions, and also a world where people often spin and manipulate and lie through their teeth, even lie to themselves, to ourselves.  Chevron runs ads claiming to be “green”, so does PG&E.  You can make anything sound good for the planet if you’ve got a big enough advertising budget.  Those of us who want to make decisions that are going to be better for the environment, we need ways of fact-checking, of grounding what we do in reality.  Part of that is using our own senses to observe the world immediately around us.

One of the books I read in college, “Developing Ecological Consciousness” by Christopher Uhl, talks about the importance to the environmental movement as a whole of simply being aware of the place you live in.  The one thing I remember most about the book is how the author discusses his own life and his own personal development (and his own mistakes!) right alongside theoretical concepts.  It is generally considered unprofessional in academic circles to acknowledge one’s own existence — I strongly believe this to be a profound mistake, for any subject of direct relevance to human beings.  That is, if you’re writing about math or physics or engineering, there is little need to bring your personal life experience into it; but for subjects relating to people a certain amount of subjectivity is unavoidable and so it is preferable to not pretend to objectivity.  I admire Uhl for going against that tradition of professional invisibility.  It certainly made the book more approachable, and I suspect far more relevant as well.

Out of respect for the effectiveness of the personal approach, and in the interest of valuing integrity over looking professional, I will attempt as much as I can to speak in terms of my personal experience when that seems the best approach.  When making statements that can be empirically verified, I will do my best to verify and reference sources.  And when making theoretical statements I will attempt to ferret out where I got the ideas from and acknowledge those inspirations — although, because playing with ideas is fun and worth doing for its own sake, I will not refrain from sharing an idea just because I am unsure of its origin or its veracity.

In the interest of keeping this blog relevant, concise, and well thought out, I’m considering a “sleep on it” policy, where I don’t post anything until I’ve had a chance to proofread the next day, when I can see mistakes and confusing phrasing with fresh eyes.  I’m sure this won’t clear up everything, but I hope it will help.