How I gained some understanding of feminist views on rape (Trigger warning!)

For a long time, I got depressed every time I read the comments on articles about rape culture and how to stop sexual violence.

Of course it’s normal to get depressed reading the comments on any article. (I am eternally thankful to my pet starling Sirius, for perching on my mouse hand and pecking at my scrolling finger whenever I’ve been sitting at the computer too long!)

Rape is certainly not one of the more pleasant things I could be reading articles about, and articles on gender politics of any kind are bound to get inflammatory discussion in the comments. Read them, and you’re going to end up seeing some viewpoints that are so opposite to your own that they drive you crazy. It’s a world of roiling conflict in there.

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Thoughts on feeling proud

This is a reposted post from my old blog, circa April 2013. Posting it because I was thinking about it, and realized my newer readers may not have seen it.

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To those who ask “Why isn’t it okay to have white pride, or straight pride?”

My own answer:

I am not proud of being white, or straight. But I’m also not proud of being a woman, or having Asperger’s Syndrome, per se, because I did not choose those things. What I do feel pride in is the accomplishments I have made despite those traits and the way society reacts to them.

I feel that pride is for things you accomplish, not things you have no control over. So, to me, gay pride or black pride or women’s pride is real and laudable, but it’s not about feeling proud of a characteristic you can’t control. It’s about feeling proud of the things you’ve accomplished in the face of prejudice. And that’s why there is no sense in being proud of an uncontrollable trait for which you have never experienced discrimination.

Portrayal of sexual violence in one of my short stories (Trigger warning!)

In my short story collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?” I have one story called “Ardent,” which is set in the same world as our science-fiction novel “Kea’s Flight.”

As warned in the mini-introduction on the page preceding it, “Ardent” is a dark story, portraying the descent into madness of one of the villains of “Kea’s Flight.” And it may bother some readers that it contains what appears to be a scene of attempted rape, from the point of view of the aggressor, who is undergoing a mental breakdown and losing control of his actions.

Even as a woman with openly liberal political views, I know I’m taking a risk by having a scene like that in a story. Every day I see more and more articles online complaining about rape being used as a plot device, giving the impression that many people don’t find any fictional depiction of rape or attempted rape acceptable.

And because of the nature of my story’s depiction, I’ve been feeling some concern about the possibility that people might interpret the story as an expression of support for rapists, a sympathetic account of what it’s like from the rapist’s perspective, or a statement that rapists “just can’t control themselves” and are “driven” to commit the crime.

This is obviously not what I intended, but I understand the complaint, and I’d like to do what I can to explain why I wrote the scene as I did. First, a clarification of exactly what the scene entails. (Possible triggers and spoilers after the cut.)

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My one regret: I didn’t spend enough time working

They say that people never die wishing they had worked more.

But I’m pretty sure that if I died now, that would be my one big regret. I fully expect to die someday wishing I’d worked more.

Not at my job, necessarily, but at writing, participating in events, talking to people, making connections. Perhaps even if I worked harder at my paying job, earned more money, earned promotions, that would have contributed something to my life’s goal.

My life’s goal is to make my way into a position where I have the influence to help fix the greatest problems in the world.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Prejudice and promiscuity, and my own fictional archetypes

I’ve been thinking with some concern about two issues relating to my webcomic “Abby and Norma.”

One is the simplicity and one-dimensionality of some of the minor characters; their tendency to serve as cardboard cutout counterpoints to Abby’s arguments, and whether I should just let them be what they are, or try to build them into something more complex and interesting, if not realistic.

The second is one particular facet of that simplicity: the sexually promiscuous nature of Abby’s enemy Cathy.

The term “slut-shaming” has gained a lot of ground in recent years. People are becoming more and more aware that the world is cruel to those who have many sexual partners. Promiscuous women are labeled as “sluts” who have no self-respect. Promiscuous men are generally treated better, but still not great: they’re often seen as sexist “womanizers” who have no respect for their partners.

These characterizations are, of course, unfair, though they’re based on grains of truth. It’s totally possible to have lots of casual sex and still be careful, responsible, and respectful of everyone involved. Sex is perfectly fine as long as you’re honest about what you’re getting into, and considerate of other people’s happiness and well-being. It’s true that many promiscuous people break these rules, but that doesn’t mean promiscuity in itself is bad.

Certainly I didn’t intend for Cathy to be a slut-shaming stereotype. As I’ve said before, the character of Cathy is a mixture of all the things my school-age self found distasteful in other students. And back when this mixture was being formed, I had little or no knowledge of slut-shaming. In fact, in my own personal high-school and college experience, the very opposite seemed to be happening.

Maybe my view was warped by my social difficulties, but to me, in school, it always seemed that having a wildly active sex life was considered normal, and that I was considered a loser because I didn’t; because I focused my attention on nerdy, uncool things like art, writing and schoolwork, instead of sex. Everything I observed in high school and college indicated to me that being a slut was cool, popular– all the things I wasn’t.

I don’t remember ever seeing any slut-shaming. Maybe I just couldn’t recognize it, or maybe it wasn’t common in the state I grew up in or the schools I went to, or maybe the popular kids never did it around me. But I do remember a lot of virgin-shaming, aimed at me and other geeks.

Back then, the only social distinction I really saw was the distinction between nerds and non-nerds. From my perspective, the girls who had one long-term boyfriend, the girls who had a different boyfriend every month, and the girls who had one-night stands every week were all blurred together. To me, they were all just “the girls who looked down on me for having nothing.”

I realize that they probably didn’t look down on me as much as I thought, at least not for that reason. But at the time, I had a very long memory for all the moments when it seemed as if they did. I felt as if sluttiness was the prevailing world order, and I was the downtrodden underdog who dared to consider my grades more important than my sex life.

When I learned the word “slut,” it felt like a weapon of the resistance, a way for oppressed geeks like me to fight back against the insanity that was considered normal. It felt like learning that I could use the words “sheep” and “conformists” to insult those who followed social rules. I didn’t feel that I was oppressing sluts, I felt I was rebelling against their oppression of me.

Of course, being who I was, I didn’t actually go around calling anyone a slut. For the most part I stayed buried in my books and drawings, ignoring and ignored by my so-called peers. But sometimes I thought dark thoughts to myself about the popular and promiscuous. The word “slut” may have made its way into some of my internal rants.

I did eventually outgrow this simplistic hatefulness. As I grew up and built a more diverse and sophisticated circle of friends, I began to distinguish between promiscuity and virgin-shaming. I learned that people are complex, and not everyone who sleeps around is a nerd-abusing cheerleader or jock. But somewhere inside me remained the old, simplified view, the traces of how my schoolgirl mind had divided the whole world into geeks and antigeeks.

And even once I knew better, Cathy rose up out of those ancient feelings and took her place in the comic, because the feelings were too old and ingrained to stay out of all the things I created. The more I write Abby and Norma, the more I realize that Cathy is not like any real person I know, and that some people might even be hurt by her portrayal of promiscuity.

Cathy is evil not because of her slutty ways, but because she tries to force them on others, insulting and belittling Abby for not being slutty like her. She is what I used to think all normal students were like, back when I was in school and trying to figure out the world.

Abby is often a caricature of me, expressing opinions that are exaggerated versions of opinions I have or used to have. Abby’s mom is a caricature not of my own mother, but of the annoying traits of some other mothers I’ve known. Likewise, Cathy seems to be a caricature of non-autistic students, taking some of the things they occasionally do and exaggerating them to ridiculous extremes.

I don’t know how, or if, I could ever develop her into a more realistic character. I don’t know if “Abby and Norma” is even supposed to be the kind of comic that has realistic characters. But I felt I should write something to shed light on the origins of Cathy, and how the way the world looked to me as a teen and young adult is quite far from the way it looks to people today.

The animal-hoarder of 1930’s Vienna: A review of “King Solomon’s Ring”

I’ve just finished reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,” a naturalist’s account of his life with a ridiculous number of not-so-domestic animals. It was recommended to me by a guest at a speech, because I had mentioned during the speech that we had just adopted a pet starling. So, of course, I went into this reading experience with the expectation that starlings would be a main feature of the book.

In that respect, I was disappointed, but overall the book has been more fun than I could have imagined.

It was published in 1952, and describes events from much earlier, most of which took place in Europe before World War II. Lorenz was an Englishman living in Austria (having lived in Austria for a semester myself, the setting as well as the subject matter was of interest to me). He, and his wife and children, lived in a house that also contained dogs, mongooses, monkeys, apes, parrots, jackdaws, geese, lemurs, hamsters, water-shrews, crows, an eagle, and any number of other bizarre animals– mostly not even kept in cages, or if they had cages, they were allowed outside of them most of the time. Lorenz saw his pets as both companions and research subjects; he let them run free partly because he valued their happiness, and partly because he felt he could observe their behavior more naturally that way.

In both the body of the book and the foreword by another author, Konrad’s wife is described as saintly for putting up with all this. She’s quoted as saying that she managed to tolerate it because she spent more time at her job than at home. But, as another married woman with a fascination for nature and the bizarre, I find myself wondering. Did she put up with it because of a sense of wifely duty? Or did she actually, deep down, enjoy living in a zoo– as I might– but feel hesitant to say so in a day and age when no “proper” woman would feel anything but disgust for such a situation?

In the present day and age– and in the USA– such a situation, of course, wouldn’t even be tolerated by law enforcement. Native birds can’t legally be taken from their nests as Lorenz described (though non-native birds like starlings are fair game) and there are very few places to live where you could keep a pet ape or mongoose without some sort of special permit. From his account it seems that his animals were happy, but I can still imagine modern neighbors rushing to call animal control (not to mention child protection services– according to his narrative, sometimes the only safe place for a child in his house was inside a large cage.)

But his stories of animal behavior are still delightful to read, if one makes allowances for the time he lived in, and the different values of that time.

He gives a fascinating account of the territorial behavior of sticklebacks and cichlids in his aquariums, making the reader see more depth and complexity in these little fish than previously imagined. His story of keeping water-shrews is hilarious, this time not because of the animals’ complexity, but because of how simple their minds are, and how absolutely baffled they find themselves when an obstacle in their cage is moved.

For a scientist of his time period, I find his view of animals surprisingly balanced between the extremes of anthropomorphizing them and reducing them to thoughtless and unfeeling automatons. He recognizes that, being distantly related to us, they have many of the same basic drives and instincts as humans, and probably feel similar emotions, but he also frequently reminds the reader that the animals come at things from their own perspective, which is often totally unlike the human perspective.

There certainly are times when I suspect he’s jumping to conclusions in his interpretation of his pets’ behavior. It’s easy to be wrong about the motives for an action, even the action of a close human friend or relative, let alone the action of a creature physically and mentally very unlike us and living a completely different sort of life. He makes the best guesses he can about why his animals do what they do, but his observations are inevitably somewhat hampered by his own attachment to them and the not-quite-natural environment in which he’s observing them.

He’s also, of course, a product of his time when it comes to errors in the biological sciences. He devotes an entire chapter to the differences in personality and temperament between the breeds of dogs descended from wolves and the breeds descended from jackals– which looks pretty ridiculous to someone reading in an era when all the genetic evidence indicates that dogs are 100% descended from wolves and none of them have any jackal blood.

Still, for his era, he’s very advanced in his understanding of animal behavior, and even when he might be wrong, his accounts are still a lot of fun to read. I only wish he had written more about starlings.

His mentions of starlings are confined to a few paragraphs, in which he recommends them as an easy-to-raise pet for the inexperienced keeper of animals, and describes their infancy, rate of growth, and the diet they should be fed in captivity. He only briefly mentions that they can be affectionate and learn to mimic words.

In the little he says about them, I can see tons of things that would outrage my friends on the Starlingtalk.com forum. The foods he advocates have virtually no overlap with what present-day starling-keepers consider a healthy diet, and he actually recommends taking infant birds from their nests to raise them, which is heavily frowned-on among the starling-lovers I’ve met online.

But for me personally, the biggest disappointment was that he didn’t include any actual stories of life with a starling. He makes it known that he raised them, but sadly, he gives no specific examples. His accounts of the antics of his other pets are so delightful that I think I would have loved some funny tales of the things his starlings learned to say, the mischief they made playing with jewelry and the like, or any of the other silly things that they must have done, if my own pet starling is at all typical of the species.

He does make up for it, though, by giving many pages to the lives of his colony of jackdaws. They’re not starlings, but they are similar birds, being very social, very affectionate and able to mimic speech. The hierarchy, social rules and interactions within his jackdaw society are utterly fascinating and lovingly described, reminding me a lot of the descriptions of raven society in the more recent book “Ravens in Winter.”

Even though starlings were somewhat neglected in his narrative, I’ve found that a side effect of reading Lorenz’s prose is a tendency to observe my own pet as he would. Whole paragraphs of Lorenzian naturalist description pop into my head from time to time as I watch Sirius the starling, and I find myself wording my own my observations in a 1950’s English scientist’s writing style:

“On the whole, Sirius prefers for his sustenance such foods that are white or very light-coloured, or black or very dark-coloured, and regards with suspicion any proffered fruit of a brighter orange or red hue; this, I believe, owing to the proclivity of the starling for feeding primarily upon insects in the wild, and his instinctive knowledge that the insects upon which a wild starling may most safely feast are those of dark colouration, such as the ants and house-flies, and the black beetles which are ever present in a garden, as well as those of light colouration, as the larvae of such beetles, and fly-maggots– the species that bear patches of bright colour most often doing so to signal to their enemies that they are venomous, or at the very least, foul-tasting.”

Having a sh!t-in: Why sex-segregated bathrooms hurt all of us

When I was a grade-school kid, having just learned the history of Jim Crow and Rosa Parks and sit-ins, I became inspired to protest segregation in my own way.

I started hanging out in the boys’ bathroom.

To me, dividing bathrooms by sex didn’t seem any less bigoted than dividing them by race. People were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of the opposite sex? Well, in the days of Jim Crow, people were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of another race; that didn’t make segregation acceptable. Sexual crimes happen in bathrooms? Well, so do racial hate crimes, sometimes, but that’s no reason for racial segregation.

No one listened to my arguments. I saw the inside of the principal’s office more often than the inside of either restroom.

At the time, I wasn’t even very aware of transgender issues. I was focused on the ways that segregation hurts everyone. The girls like me who didn’t try to look boyish but always got mistaken for boys anyway. The disabled adults who needed help to use the bathroom, and whose only available helper was someone of the opposite sex.

Have you ever been denied the right to use a public restroom because the restroom for your sex was closed for cleaning? Then you, too, have been a victim of segregation.

And now, in this era of slightly increased transgender awareness, society is finally starting to realize that the issue even exists.

All over the news are articles about transgender people fighting for the right to use the public restrooms intended for the gender they identify with. The struggles they have to go through to fulfill this basic need are heartbreaking.

One issue that always seems to be ignored: This discrimination can be ended only by eliminating segregation entirely.

It’s a simple line of reasoning. If you have a rule that men have to use the men’s room and women have to use the women’s room, then:

1. Having that rule is pretty useless unless you can enforce it.

2. To enforce it, you have to be able to define who is a man and who is a woman.

3. And you have to be able to identify people as men or women just by looking at them, or some other test that can be performed in the moments before they enter the restroom.

Pretty impossible.

You could define it by who looked male or female to you, but that leaves tons of potential for error. I would have been kicked out of the girls’ room as a kid, if it had been based on people’s ability to tell I was a girl by looking at me.

You could define it by the clothes people were wearing, so that anyone who was presenting as a woman could enter the women’s room… but how do you define women’s clothing? Would I not be allowed in the women’s room if I’m wearing a gender-neutral t-shirt and jeans? And how do you tell a transwoman from a cis man who puts on a dress so he can legally go in the women’s room and ogle people?

There was a city that tried to enforce it by looking at the gender printed on people’s state IDs. But this discriminated against transgender people who had not had their IDs changed to reflect their reassignment– as well as people who didn’t have an ID with them.

The only solution is not to segregate the bathrooms in the first place.

Before you criticize this option, and rail against me for desecrating women’s privacy and encouraging sex crimes… take a look at this picture of an actual unisex restroom.

This is a drawing I did from memory, of a bathroom in a local theater here in MN. See how each stall is its own little room, with thick walls, and a door that goes all the way to the floor? See how the common area with the sink is out in the open, so anyone who wanted to harass someone would be in plain view of pretty much everyone?

A unisex bathroom gives you more privacy than a segregated one.

And it solves all the other problems too. It removes the debate over which bathroom you should use when people disagree on whether you’re a man or a woman. It provides a welcoming environment for disabled men who need the help of a wife or mother to use the bathroom, or vice versa. And each stall is cleaned individually, so no one ever has to wait for the “correct” bathroom to be cleaned before they can use it.

If you agree that all bathrooms should be like this, spread the word. Perhaps we can make a difference.

My ostracized childhood self, leaning against the wall in the boys’ room greeting every visitor with “Hello, I’m having a shit-in!” may have been taking the wrong approach. It may have been more a plea for attention than an earnest expression of my beliefs. But I did have those beliefs, and they were on the right track. Maybe someday they will finally be vindicated.

I am not the archetypal author: Why “in character” has no meaning


I realized that, if I had written about this experience and included it as a scene in one of my works of fiction, many readers would accuse me of “inconsistency” and “not staying in character.”

As a real, non-fictional person, of course, I don’t have the concept of “in character.” I’m not any of the fictional archetypes– not even the more complex archetypes, since none of them are as complex as a human being. Whatever rules I come up with to describe my behavior, there are always exceptions, and even I can’t always define where and what those exceptions are going to be.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Hangers

Sometimes I wonder why plain wire coat hangers are so hard to find in retail stores like Target or Wal-Mart. You can find the plastic hangers and the wood hangers, and sometimes really thick metal hangers, but not the simple hangers that are made out of a plain old 16-or-so-gauge wire bent into a hanger shape.

You know, the kind that’s cheap, and doesn’t take up much space, and is tougher than plastic hangers and doesn’t break after you’ve hung a coat on it for six months.

Maybe someone at the top of the corporate world decided that selling wire hangers was too dangerous, because women would just use them for abortions?

One time I was looking for hangers in a store, and my brain thought up this elaborate corporate conspiracy, complete with pervasive surveillance and abortion-police keeping files on people:

“Warning, warning. Hanger alert. A woman in aisle P17 has asked an employee where the plain wire hangers are.”

“Commence surveillance on subject. Bring up her internet history, make note of any abortion-related searches.”

“Alert! Subject’s pharmacy records show she takes birth control pills. If she’s pregnant she would undoubtedly be seeking an abortion. Must bar her from all access to hangers. Intercept if she approaches a dry cleaning service.”

“Danger! Danger! She is buying 16-gauge wire from a hardware store!”

“Roger that. On my way, following her home.”

“Do you have a visual on the inside of her home? Repeat, do you have a visual?”

“Roger that. I have her on screen.”

“What is she doing with the wire?”

“She’s… making hangers out of it.”

“…Hmm. This is a devious one. We’ll need to keep extra close tabs on her.”

Seriously, though– plain wire hangers are great. Not only are they the most durable hangers you can get for the money, but they can be used for all sorts of clever household solutions– including this thing I came up with today, when I needed another over-the-door hanging hook and didn’t have time to go buy one:

(I agree they’re probably terrible for abortions, though.)

Hunger strikes: a baffling human custom

Strange things happening these days. This anti-gay-marriage protest is probably the worst thing a hunger strike has ever been used for.

In fact, I’ve often thought about how strange it is that hunger strikes are socially acceptable at all. They’re really just a variation of “I’m going to commit suicide unless you do what I want.”

Usually you end up institutionalized if you say something like that. Does the method of suicide really matter that much?