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SOMETIMES THE PERSONAL ISN’T POLITICAL

How data made me a revolutionary

I’ve been going to church occasionally, with a friend of mine and her granddaughter. I wasn’t raised in the church and I am not a believer, but I am beginning to understand the value of gathering with some of your neighbors once a week, reflecting together and singing some songs.

It’s too bad, I now realize, that this version of church is so muddied up with all those other versions of church: the one where the church is a platform from which to manipulate great swathes of people into voting against their own interests, for example; or the one where the church is used as a battering ram against women and LBTQ people; or the one where the church turns out to be a massive pedophilic child abuse ring.

From the pew of my little church in New Orleans, I see the version of church that people love so dearly. I can see that it’s possible for the same idea to be at once a force for good in our private personal worlds, and a force for evil in our shared political world. 

Some of our personal convictions work a lot better if they remain personal. When we try to make them political (i.e., attempt to apply them to society as a whole), they don’t achieve what we hoped and intuited they would, and sometimes they even hurt, instead of helping.

I think many of my liberal readers already embrace this idea, when it comes to Christian Republican convictions (”one man, one woman!”, “it’s a child, not a choice!”, “thoughts and prayers!”). But strap in, Lib Dems, cus I’ve got a piece for you, too. 

THE ABORTION RATE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS

To further illustrate the concept, let’s talk about abortion.

If you really hate abortion, and you’ve never read any data on the topic, I can see how you might think that making abortion illegal is a good way to drive down the abortion rate. 

Alas, it has been tried a number of times, and the data has revealed that it is not. The real-world result of banning abortion is not fewer abortions, but more dangerous abortions

So truly noble-hearted pro-lifers (I’ve met some!) should face the fact that abortion bans are not good legislation. They are supposed to result in fewer abortions, but they don’t. Instead, they kill a bunch of pregnant women (which, I hope we can agree, is pretty anti-life).

Similarly, “abstinence education” does not result in fewer teen pregnancies, “thoughts and prayers” does not result in fewer mass shootings, and “building a wall” will not result in more jobs or less crime.

All of these ideas are “political” only in that they are being used successfully to manipulate voters. None of them is (or can become) a successful policy, according to our hardworking and underappreciated friend, data. 

For contrast, here’s some data that could be really useful in policy-making, if anyone bothered to read it:

  1. Countries with more restrictions on abortions tend to have higher abortion rates. When countries with legal abortion provide women with access to free birth control, on the other hand, the abortion rate plummets by AS MUCH AS SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT. 
  2. Legalizing sex work has been shown to decrease reported sexual assault and rape by THIRTY PERCENT OR MORE. Providing safe online venues for sex workers to find clients (the opposite of the recent SESTA and FOSTA bills) has been shown to REDUCE THE FEMALE HOMICIDE RATE BY 17%. (Read that again. It’s insane. Now read this. Or, if you don’t feel like reading, just listen to this podcast.)
  3. There are six times as many vacant houses in the US as there are homeless people, and it costs a ton of money to police the homeless population for nonviolent offenses. Why don’t we just give them houses?

Isn’t data cool?!???

This is why it’s a good idea to craft legislation and political strategies based on data, rather than on what feels intuitively or emotionally “right”. When we are unwilling to examine that distinction, we run the risk of 1) turning our adorable private beliefs (thoughts! prayers!) into ineffective, counterproductive, or dangerous political policy, and 2) ignoring data that can actually save lives, in favor of continuing to debate ideas that are politically pointless (eg: “is abortion right or wrong?”). 

PLASTIC DOESN’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS, EITHER

But guess what other ideas are personally adorable and politically pointless? “Don’t use straws”. Also “go vegan”, “buy organic”, “reduce, reuse, recycle”, and “impeach Trump”. Regardless of their intuitive or emotional impact, none of these ideas has a snowball’s chance in hell of addressing the problems they aim to address, and thus, as political strategies, they are more or less “thoughts and prayers”. Here’s why:

  1. Worldwide plastic production is projected to increase by 400% by 2050
  2. Organic food still has a conspicuous lack of conclusive evidence for its benefits to health or the environment
  3. Despite the fact that vegetarianism and veganism appear to be trending in the U.S. and Canada, global meat consumption is on the rise and is projected to continue rising steeply (76% by mid-century).
  4. That’s because the entire populations of the U.S. and Canada make up only 4.75% of the total world population (and dropping), with the world population expected to double by 2074.

(And, y’all, I hate to remind you, but impeaching Trump (almost certainly) gets us President Pence: an equally insane demagogue who is poised to enact possibly-even-more-terrifying policies.)

I’m not arguing that these ideas have no impact, or that they are bad ideas for you to apply to your personal life (e.g. if you have a Trumpian psychopath living in your household, you should certainly kick him out). I’m arguing that their impact on the problems they aim to solve is so immeasurably, impossibly small, that they will never get within a mile of the ballpark of solving them. 

And that therefore, going vegan or eschewing plastic straws is in fact not a political act, but a personal one; like going to church, or getting a pedicure. 

I’m not saying this to bum you out, or to judge you (I literally just got a pedicure). I’m saying it because when we pretend that “don’t use straws” is a political strategy, and will help us to address the life-threatening global crisis of ocean pollution, I think we are perpetuating a kind of confusion which could perhaps inhibit our ability to engage with these problems on the level of reality.

Which is, unfortunately, where most of us will have to continue living.

SCALE IS CONFUSING

The difference between political ideas and personal ideas is scale. The ocean, for example, is not a pool in your backyard (which you can simply refrain from filling with plastic). It’s a body of water which covers the entire planet, and is affected by all human activity. And “all human activity”, although it is made up of a bunch of individuals doing individual activities, cannot be accurately portrayed by the phrase “a bunch of individuals doing individual activities”. It’s better described in terms of human systems: institutions, governments, militaries, cities, countries, corporations and industries.

To approach these massive, complex, ocean-polluting systems as though they are a collection of individual people sipping beverages through straws is an ineffective tactic. So ineffective, it really can’t be called a tactic at all.

One way to determine whether something is a good tactic is to ask yourself: if this project was 100% effective, what would be the measurable result? Eg:

  1. If 100% of humans stop using straws: ocean pollution will decrease by up to .025%
  2. If 100% of humans switch to organic food: the environmental benefits will be mixed, and we will grow 25–34% less food.

That’s not to mention the fact that it is probably impossible to achieve a 100% effectiveness rate with ideas like these, because so far they are available to only a small subsection of people in a few very wealthy countries.

So, no matter how intuitively correct they may seem, at the scale of the entire globe (the scale where the oceans and the atmosphere exist), these ideas have roughly the same impact that “thoughts and prayers” have on mass shootings: they make a lot of people feel better about the fact that they are doing nothing to address a looming, life-threatening crisis. 

If you ask me, we like to think that these ideas are politically effective for exactly that reason: because otherwise we will have to face the coming apocalypse of climate change, and the fact that humans on-the-whole are doing approximately jackshit about it. 

And I understand why you’d want to avoid that! It’s fucking terrifying.

But my hunch is that we should instead admit that we’re doing jackshit about climate change, that the straws and the veganism and the potential impeachment were a waste of political energy, and that we are all absolutely terrified.

If we need to calm our nerves after that, we can go get pedicures. 

And then perhaps, with a clearer head and calmer nerves, we can work on creating some actual political strategies. 


YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE WORLD BY YOURSELF

Out here in terrifying reality, large-scale problems require large-scale solutions. And although it is intuitive to think that large-scale solutions are made up of lots of small-scale solutions (stop each person from using each straw!), it is sadly untrue. Complex systems – countries, economies, organisms – just don’t behave like a collection of small parts. 

Similarly, major societal changes aren’t really made of a bunch of individual people making a bunch of individual changes. They are made of large-scale, long-term, coordinated applications of science, money, propaganda, and strategic organizing.  

The right wing seems very clear on this fact, and uses it to great political effect (for example, we are still debating the “rightness” of abortion, despite its total irrelevance to policy-making, because they realized in the 1970s that debating abortion gets more people to vote Republican). 

On the liberal left, though, I think there is some confusion about it. “The personal is political”, “think globally, act locally”, and “be the change you want to see in the world” get thrown around a little too frequently, and usually as advertisements for water bottles. 

How quickly we forget that when Gandhi said “be the change” (which, by the way, he didn’t), he was probably referring to organizing millions of his countrymen in revolutionary acts of civil disobedience, towards a specific and well-defined political goal. He was not talking about buying a glass water bottle.

A relevant term to introduce here might be “phase transition”. A phase transition is when a system suddenly jumps from one phase to another. Boiling water is a good example: as you gradually turn up the heat on a pot of water, it just becomes gradually hotter water, until you get to 100C. Then, all at once, it becomes boiling water. And boiling water (in order to release the gas that the water is transitioning into) behaves very differently from hot water.

What we need to survive on this planet is not incrementally fewer straws and more Priora, it’s a global phase transition into an entirely different societal structure. And the individual consumer approach (“ask everyone to stop using plastic straws, then ask them to stop driving SUVs, then ask them to stop eating beef…”) is not just devastatingly slow, it is doomed to ineffectiveness. 

It’s like trying to boil a pot of water by doling it out into Dixie cups and asking your friends to breathe hot air onto each individual cup. Intuitively, it seems like it might eventually work (the water is getting hotter, right?), but alas. No matter how good a job we each do with our little paper cups, the water will never boil.

If we want to boil the water, we need to pour all our cups into the same pot. 


CANADA IS NOT THE WORLD 

“But Canada is banning single-use plastic!”, you say. “Isn’t that a large-scale solution?” 

Again, and unfortunately, it is not. Although “all the straws in Canada” is a lot more straws than “that one straw you’re using now”, it is still not even in the neighborhood of enough straws. The scale of plastic straw usage in Canada, when compared to the scale of plastic pollution in the oceans that span the planet earth, is just one more lukewarm Dixie cup. 

The idea that Canada’s plastic ban is “a big win for the environment” only illustrates how resigned we are to losing. We are so resigned, we aren’t even capable of thinking about the problem at the appropriate scale. 

If the Canadian single-use plastic ban has a 100% success rate, the oceans will continue to be 100% fucked by plastic. 

That’s partly because there just aren’t that many Canadians. It’s also because consumer plastics are mostly not what ocean pollution is made out of (just like personal cars are mostly not what climate change is made out of).

And finally, it’s because everyone is not going to stop using plastic. Everyone is also not going to stop using petroleum-burning vehicles, or cows, or rice paddies. Everyone is not going to stop doing anything, unless and until the global industrial system allows us to do so. 

We are still using petroleum not because we haven’t yet convinced each individual person to stop, but because the entire world economy is based on petroleum, and every powerful government on earth includes or is influenced by representatives of the petroleum industry. We are still using petroleum because the petroleum industry has its own lobbyists and politicians and spies and assassins and propagandists and governments. 

We are still using petroleum because, at this point in history, the petroleum industry has a lot more influence over us than we do over it.

This may seem like bad news. But here’s the good news: we are not a bunch of individual people, facing a bunch of individual problems. We - the humans - have just one big problem. Our problem is that we have created a world where the petroleum industry is more powerful than any person, idea, government, or country. And so is the banking industry, and the tech industry, and the pharmaceutical industry, and the prison industry, and the war industry. 

And all of these industries share one goal, to the exclusion of all others: profit. 

Which means that most of the major societal changes happening on the planet are determined not by data, or democracy, or cute social media campaigns, or the pursuit of the greater good; but by the pursuit of profit, for each company, in each quarter. 

And these companies and industries are so committed to that narrow goal - hogtied to it, really - that they are willing to hijack elections and start wars and crash the global ecosystem to pursue it. And all of us who share the planet with them - the humans, and the animals, and the oceans - are at the mercy of that pursuit.

The shorthand for this problem is “late-stage capitalism”. 

When we are thinking on the global scale - which, again, is the only scale where we can have a measurable effect on the global phenomena of oceans and atmosphere - it becomes clear that the only way to tackle climate change at this point (having failed to do jackshit so far) is to fundamentally change the way the world works. 

We need a phase transition.

But you don’t have to take it from me; take it from this team of independent scientists in their report to the U.N.


WE ARE ALL IN THIS TERRIFYING THING TOGETHER

If you’re a person who thought buying organic was a political act, I apologize. You’ve been duped. But it’s not your fault! The idea that our personal consumer choices have an impact on the global economy is not an accident. It is, in fact, a feature of capitalism.

It is good for capitalism when we believe that our personal choices are political choices, because it keeps us from focusing on large-scale problems and organizing to solve them (which, at this point in history, cannot be good for capitalism). Consumer-level environmentalism creates lots of new markets, while having no negative impact whatsoever on the industries that actually run the planet and profit off of its devastation. 

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If we want to start making political choices, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as heroic individuals, able to single-handedly stop climate change by buying a different phone case. We are part of the world, which is a small place, entirely and inseparably interconnected, and has one very big problem, which we can only solve together.

The big problem thrives when we believe that we are separate people facing separate problems. It thrives when we worry about ourselves, and our beliefs, and what kind of water bottle to buy. It thrives by keeping us distracted, divided, and self-interested.

The truth is, banning straws will not solve our problem, because our problem is bigger than straws. It’s bigger than plastic, and styrofoam, and carbon emissions. It’s bigger than AK-47s and abortion bans. Impeaching Trump won’t solve it, because our problem is bigger than Trump; in fact, our problem is even  bigger than “men”.

There is only one man, his name is capitalism, and he’s got us all by the pussy.

SOME COOL DATA ABOUT SOCIALISM

I am a socialist, which means I think we ought to organize our societies around some motives other than profit. I don’t buy that the profit motive is particularly sacred or efficient (except at making profit - it’s very efficient at that), and I prefer almost all the other motives: creativity, kindness, lust, humor, fun. 

I dream of a highly democratic post-capitalist society wherein politically-invested citizens make collective, data-driven decisions about how to allocate the resources of this one small planet that we share.

Before we get to the data, a few clarifying points:

“Socialism has never worked.” 

  1. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there is only one country in the world which is currently “sustainable” in terms of both human development and environmental footprint: Cuba
  2. Here is a comprehensive comparison of health outcomes for socialist vs. capitalist countries, using data from the 1970s and 80s. It finds that Cuba made significantly more gains than its neighbors in all available health indicators (life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality and employment), as did China (as compared to India) and the Soviet Union (as compared to West Germany and Austria). Cuba currently has the lowest infant mortality rate in history and one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
  3. All of this is to say that “has never worked” is the kind of blanket statement that is designed to shut down conversations. In my opinion, there is a more productive conversation to be had by asking questions such as “in what ways has socialism worked and not worked? What about capitalism?”

“Authoritarianism! Gulags! Freedom!”

  1. The United States (a capitalist democracy) currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with starkly disproportionate incarceration of black Americans. Currently, about 80% of U.S. prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and 22% of U.S. prisoners are awaiting trial (they have not been convicted or sentenced).
  2. Israel is a capitalist democracy and a close ally of the U.S. In May, Israeli forces murdered 16 peaceful protesters and wounded 65, including children and paramedics. Exactly one year before, they killed 65 peaceful protesters and wounded 2,400. (For the record, I am a Jew, and there is nothing anti-Semitic about acknowledging the fact that Israel is currently engaged in a number of human rights violations.)
  3. Then, of course, there’s slavery, the holocaust, the Trail of Tears, The Troubles, the Tuskegee Experiments, and compulsory sterilization, to name just a few. All of these acts of violence were carried out within capitalist societies, under the direction of capitalist governments. Is it possible that we are biased against the failures of socialism not because they are worse than those of capitalism, but because capitalism is the dominant paradigm? Is it possible we are experiencing just a touch of Stockholm Syndrome?

“Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Freedom!”

  1. Cuba just invented the world’s first cancer vaccine, without a speck of venture capital. Actually, public (government) funding gave us most of the vaccines we use today (unless we are Jessica Biel); along with the internet, most of our aviation and space technology, the cameras and touch-screens on our phones, and even Google and Tesla.
  2. About 30% of research worldwide is currently funded by public money (mostly government grants). Private money is not inherently more “innovative” than public money; the thing that spurs innovation is access to money, period.
  3. And of course, there is the dark side of privately-funded innovation: the rising cost of insulin, the $750 pill, the possibility that a single company may one day own the entire food chain, and the likelihood that when it comes to research, there is a relationship between funding source and conclusion.

“But people are lazy! And there’s not enough food! And Soviet bloc housing is ugly!”

  1. It doesn’t matter if people are lazy, we have robots. An Oxford study recently found that 47% of U.S. jobs (and around 13% of jobs worldwide) may be “lost to automation” over the next two decades. And many of our jobs are already bullshit: polls have found that 37% of full-time workers in the UK and 25% in the US are “quite sure that their job makes no meaningful contribution to the world”. Let’s step back a moment and consider the phase “lost to automation”; why is this a “loss” at all? Why aren’t we thanking the robots for allowing 47% of Americans to go ahead and be lazy? (The answer, my friends, is capitalism.)
  2. We have more than enough food. Hunger is caused by inequality, not scarcity.
  3. Speaking of inequality, I believe this line of panic stems from a gross misperception about just how much wealth the world has already stockpiled. The U.S. (for example) has quite a lot more money than Russia did in 1917; if we divided all the wealth evenly, each American household would have $760,000. That’s not to say we should do exactly that, it’s just to illustrate that this number is enough to provide quite a high standard of living for everyone - way higher than most of us are currently accustomed to. If the U.S. were to transition to socialism, there is no reason we couldn’t live in style with free healthcare, gorgeous homes, and delicious petri-dish meat.

So what is the actual objection, here?

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REVOLUTION: A PRACTICAL, DATA-DRIVEN POLICY IDEA

What all this data says to me is that capitalism has outlived its usefulness. More than 3 billion people on this planet already live in poverty; tens of thousands of children are dying each day from hunger and preventable diseases; we are currently seeing a global refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions, and it’s likely that 1 billion more people will soon be displaced by climate change

The only political idea I’ve come across that will allow us to respond to so many crises of such magnitude is to stop doing capitalism. And I believe that a massive, strategic, well-organized movement of many millions of people can make that phase transition happen.

I know it seems impossible. But in the words of my late hero, Ursula K. Le Guin:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” 

Our only hope, at this late date, is to pour all our water into one pot. That’s what “organizing” is; that’s what Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Fred Hampton were doing, and that’s what we all need to start doing. I don’t think this blog post will launch a revolution (sorry, trolls), but I think it was worth writing, because it’s my opinion that American liberals - a huge voting bloc with a ton of money - will be considerably more useful to the revolution if we stop wasting our breath, time and political energy on straws.

If you agree, go make friends with your local socialists (I recommend PSL). Give them your folding money to spend on organizing, instead of blowing it at Whole Foods (so Whole Foods can turn around and spend it on union busting). Commit to educating yourself and others about how capitalism works, what it’s done so far, and what the alternatives are. 

All of these activities will have more political impact than going vegan, AND you get to eat bacon.


Resources and suggested readings:  

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Why Socialism? by Albert Einstein

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (if you prefer fiction)

Sorry to Bother You (if you prefer movies)



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The Problem with Panic

Sexual misconduct, affirmative consent, and the dangers of shame and moralism.

We are in the midst of a massive reconnoitering of American sexual culture. At the convergence of the Weinstein watershed, the #MeToo movement, and the rapidly-changing standards of sexual negotiation and consent, it has become clear that we are undergoing a sea change.

Most of the women I talk to are giddy with delight. There is a sense that the feminist movement has finally made it out of classrooms and courthouses, and is entering the intimate spaces of our everyday lives. There is a sense that the chickens are coming home to roost, and that men - who have enjoyed centuries of arbitrary and unmitigated power over us - are being cut down to size. 

But there is also a sense, in some quarters, that this particular reckoning contains within it a kernel of panic, and that the legacy of sex panic in America is long and grotesque. There are those of us, for example, who feel that Al Franken might better serve women by staying in the Senate, attempting to divert the coming wave of fascism, than by sitting at home thinking about what he’s done. There are those who have been victimized not only by men, but by previous moral panics, and the misguided policy decisions that follow in their wake. And there are those of us who worry that while talking about sexual assault is a clear sign of progress, the way we are talking about sexual assault may be setting us up for a dangerous and regressive backlash.

I’ve been reading voraciously for the past couple months, trying to absorb the many competing interpretations of this cultural moment. Much of what I’ve read has been deeply thoughtful, courageous, and gorgeously written. But some of it has been short-sighted and narrow-minded; more concerned with the thrill of the latest accusation, or with regressive, sensationalist theories, than with the broader meaning or direction of the movement. Pieces like these seem to present within them the very weapons that may be pointing back at us when the tide, inevitably, turns.

As an amateur student of sexual culture, history, and law, I can’t help but notice these troubling patterns, and feel obligated to address them. I worry that this will lose me friends and fans, because some of what I’m going to say is decidedly out of fashion; so much so that it may be interpreted as offensive or even immoral.

But I am an artist, not a politician. My obligation is not to fashion, or even to feminism, but to the truth, as I see it.

1) The problem of sexual moralism.

In Christine Emba’s recent opinion piece “Let’s rethink sex”, she makes the following observation:

“It’s unlikely that we’ll return to a society in which sexual encounters outside of marriage are disallowed or even discouraged — that sex train has already left the fornication station, if it was ever properly there to begin with. But now could be the time to reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love. We might pursue the theory that sex possibly has a deeper significance than just recreation and that “consent” — that thin and gameable boundary — might not be the only moral sensibility we need respect.”

 While this seems benign enough on its face (although, spoiler: the sex train was indeed never “properly” confined to marriage), it left me in a cold sweat. Consent may be an imperfect boundary – I’d even agree that it is thin and “gameable” - but it is the only practicable boundary that does not invoke sexual moralism, which is the opposite of sexual liberation.

Moralism thrives on vague, nameless panic, and can only be beaten back with nuance and specificity. When we allow the media to lean on vague, catchall phrases like “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate behavior”, we are inadvertently furthering the cause of sexual moralism, and making room for just such harebrained attempts to “rethink sex”.

Sexual moralism makes two claims:

1. Sex is outstandingly powerful and magical. When it’s “good”, it’s sacred and holy and life-creating, but when it’s “bad” it’s terrible and evil and life-destroying. It’s really important that we protect the power/magic of sex, and don’t allow anybody to treat it with a laissez faire attitude; that’s why birth control and abortion are bad, and love and commitment are necessary.

2. All sex is either “good” or “bad”. And, wow! We happen to have the rulebook right here! We can just look up the sex in question, and determine whether it is of the sacred/holy variety, or the terrible/evil variety. It’s oh, so simple!

But here’s the bad news for the moralists. Sex is rarely magical, sacred, evil, or simple. The magical part (if you ask me), is that humans are so incredibly sexually omnivorous. There is no more a “right way” to have sex than there is a “right way” to eat food. There are plenty of ways to do it, and plenty of reasons for doing it: we do it for fun, to connect, to satisfy hunger, to satisfy curiosity, to make each other happy, to make each other unhappy, to get power and status, to explore our own psychology, to express ourselves, to distract ourselves, and to perpetuate the species. We do it because we are ridiculous, dumb, playful animals.

And as we consider resorting to sexual moralism in a desperate attempt to control sexual assault and violence, here’s the bad news for the rest of us:

Sexual moralism has more often resulted in panic-driven, counterproductive legislation (sodomy lawsSex Offender Registrieslimiting access to birth control and abortioncriminalizing gay marriage and trans use of bathrooms, and jailing teenagers for sexting) than in security or justice.

 And it has never, on the societal level, resulted in “prudence” or “temperance”.

Of course, we are each free to enjoy our own preferred flavor of sexual moralism, in our own sex life. But if we hope to progress, we should avoid imposing it on large groups of strangers.


As we watch hordes of creepy, despotic men being thrown to the lions, it’s easy to enter a Coliseum-like mob mentality. It’s thrilling to see scums-of-the-earth like Weinstein and Moore destroyed, and difficult to see the potential negative fallout of this kind of justice. But as we begin to throw additional creeps into the pit without thoroughly reviewing the evidence, we are allowing ourselves to be seduced by righteous indignation, which is often the precursor to sexual moralism.

Rejecting sexual moralism doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize people for shitty sexual behavior; or fire, prosecute or jail them for harassment or assault. It means that we must remain committed to nuance, complexity, and evidence-based justice as we do so. All of these are necessary for us, as a society, to determine how to prevent sexual assault without surrendering the hard-won victories of the sexual liberation movement. 

One of the reasons sexual moralism strikes me as a clear and present danger in contemporary American society is that any standard other than “consenting adults can have whatever kind of sex they damn well please” is just a short downhill slide from our conventional societal structure, wherein sexual morality is the purview of the Christian right.

The Christian right, in case you’ve forgotten, is allergic to all sex that isn’t straight, married, and potentially reproductive (as is alarmingly foreshadowed in Emba’s widely-shared piece, published not in Christian Living, but in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune).

And before you say “nah, this time is different!”, please cast your mind back to the ancient times of barely one year ago, when the Christian right – using their time-honored, folksy traditions of fear-mongering, nationalism, white supremacy and misogyny – helped to elect a fascist-leaning, fantastically underqualified President.

With this in mind, I think you’ll agree that it’s particularly important for us to keep our heads, and remain committed to evidence, nuance, and real progressive change. Righteous indignation – especially in times of creeping fascism - is a very bad organizing strategy.


“So how about if we avoid turning Sexual Moralism 2.0 into shitty, regressive, life-destroying legislation, and just stick with the public shamings?” You might ask. 

Unfortunately, we already have plenty of evidence that shaming people about their sexual urges and behaviors doesn’t work. Instead, it drives those urges and behaviors deeper into the closet, where they get nastier and uglier and meaner. And then, in order to protect our shameful meanness, we construct whole philosophies and institutions around the denial of said urges and behaviors, until that precious house of cards finally self-destructs under the weight of the lie.

Just ask the Catholic Church!

Or even the Penn State Nittany Lions.

We have run plenty of experiments, and the results are in. Sexual shame and moralism do not serve to prevent sexual abuse; they serve to protect it.

2) The problem of “Sex Offenders” and “Sexual Misconduct”.

On the topic of sexual moralism resulting in shitty, life-destroying legislation: let’s talk about Sex Offender Registries.

In the 1990s, a series of high-profile child sex abuse cases resulted in a cluster of sex offender laws. First, states were required to add all “Sex Offenders” to a registry; then “community reporting” laws required states to make those registries public; then “residency restrictions” were added in many states to bar registered offenders from working or living within a thousand feet of a school, park, swimming pool, or daycare.

The first problem with sex offender registries is that they have a tendency to destroy the lives of registrants. Residency restrictions can significantly impact a registrant’s ability to find legal housing or work, and most states allow potential employers and landlords to deny work or housing on the basis of sex offender status, even when the registrant has managed to meet those restrictions. Community reporting laws in some states require that whenever a registered sex offender moves or changes jobs, their neighbors and coworkers are notified, via flier or bulletin, of their status (for comparison: this does not happen when a convicted murderer moves in).

“So what’s wrong with destroying the lives of rapists and child abusers?” You may ask.

Unfortunately, the registries include large numbers of people whose “crimes” do not come close to qualifying as abuse, many of whom ended up on the list when they were teenagers, or even children themselves (according to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 9 have been placed on the registry, and Juvenile offenders account for 25 percent of the 800,000+ registrants). So even those among us with the deepest faith in punitive justice - and the deepest hatred for sex abuse - may have to admit that the implementation is less than ideal.

The second problem with sex offender registries is that they don’t work. Registry laws were passed based on a pervasive sense of panic, rather than on empirical evidence; and in the decades that have passed since their implementation, statistical data has failed to provide any. 

There is vanishingly little evidence that sex offender registration, mandatory reporting laws, or residency restrictions have any measurable impact on deterring first-time offenders, or reducing recidivism.


Both of these very big problems may relate to the fact that sex offender registries fail to make distinctions between different kinds of “sex offense”. While the registries do include people who have been convicted of rape and child molestation, they also include people like a relative of mine, who was placed on the sex offender registry at the age of nineteen for having consensual sex with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend.

Each state determines what qualifies as a sex offense, and due to the historical popularity of using sexual moralism to determine our sex laws, some states cast a particularly wide net.

Twenty-nine states can require sex offender registration for consensual sex between teenagers. Twelve states can require sex offender registration for urinating in public. In a rash of recent cases, teenagers are being placed on sex offender registries for “distributing child pornography”, after being caught texting pictures of their own genitalia to another teenager.

Sex offender registries also include people who have visited a sex worker, people who “exposed themselves” to children when they were also children, and at least one parent who was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” for letting their fifteen-year-old daughter have sex with her boyfriend.

By calling all of these people “sex offenders”, we have obliterated any possibility of sex offender registries being a useful tool for protecting our families from abuse. Instead, we have succeeded only in depriving a huge and growing number of people - whose “crimes” consist of decidedly normal and innocuous sexual behavior – of the right to fair treatment under the law.


When I read accounts of “sexual misconduct” among famous men, I can’t help but draw a correlation. I worry that we are in the process of conflating rapists and abusers with assholes (people who do mean or obnoxious things, out of thoughtlessness or insensitivity) and fuckwits (people who do dumb things, out of dumbness), and that this conflation is leading us down a dark and familiar road.

Based on my reading of the allegations at hand (with the caveat that published accounts may be incomplete, new information is coming out every day, and accusations are usually true):

- Harvey Weinstein is a rapist.

- Donald Trump is a rapist, as well as a serial sexual-assaulter.

- Kevin Spacey is a serial sexual-assaulter. He also may be attracted to adolescent teenagers, or was when he was in his twenties (not a pedophile, but a hebephile, in the name of specificity).

- Roy Moore is a serial sexual-assaulter of minors, and probably also a hebephile. 

- Louis C.K. abused his professional power to manipulate several women into weird, creepy sexual situations. This may or may not qualify as sexual assault, but it certainly qualifies as assholery. 

- Al Franken is probably more of a fuckwit.

- Garrison Keillor might be an asshole, a fuckwit, or both; but at this point, there is no public evidence to either support or refute that claim. 

Some of these cases constitute harassment or assault, and some of them may not. Some of these men have been sued by their accusers, some have not. That’s partly because it is not a crime to be an asshole, even when the expression of your assholery is sexual. And that is a good thing.

When we conflate assholery with rape and assault, and approach all of them with the same fervor for punitive justice, we are inadvertently downgrading the seriousness of rape and assault. In addition to being an insult to survivors of rape and assault, this puts us at great risk of cultural and political backlash. 

There is a danger of the #MeToo movement creating similar conflations. Although immensely useful in identifying and raising awareness of the problem (huge numbers of women have been coerced into uncomfortable and unwanted sexual situations, at work and elsewhere), the solution will require more from us. It will require lots of frank and specific conversations about what kinds of sexual behavior are dangerous, and should be labeled “criminal”; what kinds of sexual behavior are inappropriate at work, and should be fireable offenses; and what kinds of sexual behavior are socially unacceptable, but should be addressed directly with the asshole in question. 

If the sex offender registry teaches us anything, it’s that a failure to make distinctions like these - when combined with our pre-existing culture of sexual moralism and punitive justice - is itself dangerous.

I must’ve read the phrase “sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power” a thousand times since November. While I don’t dispute the sentiment, it always strikes me as incomplete. Sexual assault is about power; sex works as a method of control because sex and its attendant cultural narratives are so powerful. And the less we understand and examine them, the more powerful they become.

That’s why it seems to me that in order to address sexual assault, we need to abandon catchalls like “sexual misconduct”, and be willing to talk - with honesty and specificity - about sex. We need to confront the confusion, anxiety, messiness, and shame of our sexual culture, and of sexuality itself, and not revert to lazy and dangerous oversimplifications.

As long as we defer that project, no amount of retribution will satisfy us, or protect us.  

3) The problem of consent.

Back in October, I ran a Kickstarter campaign for a card game I created called The F’ing Truth. It’s a talking-about-sex game, and it includes over a hundred questions about players’ sexual experiences and interests. The purpose of the game is to make it fun and easy to talk about sex with the aforementioned honesty and specificity.

Halfway through the campaign, I released a printable version of the game to Kickstarter backers. Some backers reacted negatively to a few of my questions, on the grounds that those questions could be construed as pertaining to nonconsensual sex. Here are the questions they took issue with:

#23: Have you ever had sex while intoxicated, or with a partner who was intoxicated?

#26: Have you ever had sex while asleep, or with a partner who was asleep?

#34: Have you ever lied, withheld, or distorted information to encourage someone to have sex with you?

#34: Have you ever had sex with your employee, subordinate, or student?

While I agree with the fact that any of these questions could pertain to nonconsensual sex, I don’t agree with the assumption that they must. This reaction strikes me as a kind of consent-based sexual idealism, which does not leave room for the complexity, awkwardness, or confusion of actual sex.

Regardless of whether you feel that these questions are referring to “bad” sex or “good” sex: did you answer yes or no?

I, for one, answer “yes” to all of them, as have many of the people I’ve played the game with. All of these kinds of sex are prevalent, and often consensual. I worry that by vilifying them, we are – again – sacrificing a lot of valuable nuance in the name of an unrealistic standard of sexual righteousness.

In other words: this may be sexual moralism in new clothes. In this case, the measuring-stick of righteousness is “affirmative verbal consent”, combined with the belief that people who do not hold equal power (like bosses and employees) are incapable of consent. This is a better standard than, say, “sex is only for procreation”, but like all forms of sexual moralism, it makes one fatal error: it fails to thrive in reality.


The truth is, there are many healthy sexual behaviors besides fully-verbalized, enthusiastic, sober sex, between adults who know each other and enjoy the same socioeconomic status.

There is flirting – which is not only verbal, but also physical – and which by its very nature includes making a sexual overture when you don’t know for sure whether the other party feels the same way. There is the honest-but-awkward attempt to flirt, which often includes making the other party uncomfortable. There is joking, which - since the dawn of time - has included sex as a central theme, because sex is hilarious. There is non-sexual touch, which is sometimes misinterpreted as sexual. There is unwanted touch, and unwanted sex, which we are afraid or ashamed to admit is unwanted, until later. There is consensual sex that is stupid, or drunken, or just bad. There is consensual sex between bosses and employees, actors and directors, and teenagers and adults. There is the sexualization of power imbalances, which is exceedingly common for people of all genders and orientations. There is consensual sex which we regret having consented to. 

There are sexual interactions that make us feel icky, or awkward, or even deeply hurt; and yet, no wrong has been done.

I am not being prescriptive here, I am reporting. All of these kinds of interactions occur, regularly, in the actual world where we live. To chalk them all up to “nonconsensual”, and to then use “nonconsensual” as a bludgeon with which to beat each other, is to deprive ourselves of deeply important distinctions, and to shame ourselves and each other for many of the sexual interactions we have, and will continue having. 

Although “affirmative verbal consent” may be a good policy for institutions (because it removes the burden of proof from the victim), and a good guideline for men (because it treats them as responsible actors), it strikes me as a poor measure of sexual righteousness, and a potentially dangerous interpretation of feminism.


Let’s review the brief history of “affirmative verbal consent”.

In 1991, Antioch College instituted the “Sex Offense Prevention Policy”, or SOPP, which includes the following: 1) all sexual activity at this college must be consensual. 2) “Consent” is defined as verbal. 3) Violations of this policy should be reported to the community standards board. 4) In response to complaints of a violation, the board will hold a hearing in which they interview all parties involved, including witnesses. 5) The board can respond to complaints in a variety of ways, including mediation, “restitution”, therapy, community service, loss of campus privileges (jobs, housing), and finally, suspension or expulsion.

Since Antioch (which was roundly mocked for this policy in the early 90s, including by SNL), more than 1400 colleges have adopted similar policies, and two states (California and New York) have passed legislation requiring colleges to institute their own affirmative consent policies.

A few clarifying notes: 1) Affirmative consent is a policy on college campuses. It is not a law for adults who live in the wild. 2) While the SOPP gives a lot of consideration to “due process” following violations of the consent policy, many of the campus policies that have followed do not. 3) At this point, there is no evidence that affirmative consent policies result in a decline in campus assault or rape. There is, however, some evidence that these policies result in disproportionate disciplinary expulsions of students of color. 

Regardless of our personal feelings or beliefs about verbal consent (which may, rightly, be totally positive): the evidence on whether affirmative consent policies work is conspicuously absent. They may be a triumph for women, or they may be another example of turning panic into law, and waiting a few generations to find out whether it was a good idea.


Aside from law and policy, though, I’d argue that the way we are talking about consent in the media and online is becoming increasingly more ominous, less helpful to women, and further removed from the realities of sex between adult people. The trend seems to be towards a view of women as passive recipients of sex, incapable of communicating desire, preference, or rejection. 

Take, for example, this mindboggling statement recently published in the New York Times

“Most of us understand, or at least we should, that a blackout drunk person cannot consent to sex. On some campuses, that inability to consent applies even if someone has had just a sip or two. But what about a woman who doesn’t feel that she can speak up because of cultural expectations? Should that woman be considered unable to consent, too?”

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say, absofuckinglutely not. I have spent my adult life developing a sense of sexual agency; of familiarity with, and entitlement to, my sexual desires and preferences. If you want to take it from me, you’ll have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

This is Dworkinesque anti-sex feminism, repackaged for the 21st century. It echoes both Victorian feminism and the religious right in its fantasies of female purity, chastity, and helplessness in the face of Big Bad Male Sexuality. While it can make for an interesting philosophical exercise, I find it useless - and potentially dangerous - for those of us who hope to live as women here on planet earth.

Although it is too early to say conclusively, recent research suggests that sexual assault resistance training - unlike campus policies of affirmative consent - may reduce rates of assault and rape by up to 50%. The Canadian pilot program included (as part of a multi-faceted approach) training and education for young women “to explore ways to overcome emotional barriers to resisting the unwanted sexual behaviors of men who were known to them, and practice resisting verbal coercion”. 

In light of this information (and supported by my own personal experience, and that of many of the women in my life), I think we should consider the potential dangers of encouraging women to view themselves as powerless, silent victims.

To my ear, the standard of verbal consent - requested by the male partner, granted by the female partner – seems to further the “women are powerless victims” narrative. It focuses only on the male actor, gives him full responsibility for the sexual interaction, and fails to provide any guidance whatsoever for how we, as women, can have better sex, or avoid traumatic sexual experiences. 

If the conversation ends with “men should get our consent”, we have only succeeded in giving away our sexual agency, and inviting men to treat us as passive recipients of sex. Instead, it should be our goal to enter a sexual interaction as a full participant, which must necessarily include a measure of responsibility for pursuing what feels good, and changing or stopping what feels bad.


By saying this, I absolutely don’t intend to blame or shame women who have been victims of sexual assault, or of otherwise painful or traumatic sexual experiences. Many sexual assaults are physically forced, or perpetrated on a victim who is passed out, or who is a child. Some assaults are coerced in the context of power differentials that make consent complicated (I don’t believe that able-bodied, conscious adults are ever “incapable” of consent, but that does not preclude us from considering the complexities of power).

But still others fall into a gray area. Many of us have had a sexual interactions that felt terrible, but that we did not attempt to stop or change. If something like this has happened to you (as it has to me), have compassion for yourself. 

We have, after all, been socialized to find sex terrifying and confusing, and to surrender our responsibility and agency to whatever random male is available. This combination means that the very act of being approached sexually brings up a fuckton of bullshit for us, which is at times difficult to see through. 

Some of that bullshit includes: 

Sex is dirty and dangerous; you shouldn’t do it at all. Sex is sacred and holy and God cares about how and whether you do it. Sex is your only value as a human, so you should do it well. Sex is something men want, and are in charge of. Wanting or liking sex makes you a filthy slutty whore. Not wanting or liking sex makes you a dull unfuckable prude. Pleasing men is your whole job. No one will ever love you if you don’t do sex correctly.

If any of this sounds familiar, and reminds you of someone in your past, any media you’ve ever consumed, or the inside of your own brain: you may be a lucky recipient of American Female Human Socialization. If you’ve ever found yourself in an uncomfortable sexual situation and become paralyzed with confusion or fear, then congratulations! It worked. 

But in the name of becoming happier, more empowered people: shouldn’t it be our goal to work through the bullshit, and become full participants in our sexual lives? 

And when we focus only on the idea that it’s a man’s job to seek consent, and that consent is some kind of magic incantation that renders us fuckable, are we not perpetuating the same bullshit, in a hip new outfit? 

What’s more: due to the aforementioned bullshit, even if our partners request and receive verbal consent 100% of the time, we will not be saved from the possibility of icky, awkward or hurtful sex. 

We are all just too full of shit. 

To avoid hurtful and traumatizing sexual interactions, we need to approach the problem from both sides of the bed. Men should seek enthusiastic consent, and women should seek to incinerate the bullshit inside us, confront anyone who makes us uncomfortable, and become active co-creators of the sex we have.


The seemingly-innocuous #BelieveAllWomen hashtag strikes me as a similarly infantilizing perversion of feminism. Isn’t the idea that women are immaculate Goddess-creatures, irreproachable and unable to engage in debate or stand up to scrutiny, something feminism has historically been fighting against?  

These narratives of victimization (which I can’t help but notice, have a tendency to come from upper-class, educated, white liberal feminists (like me!)) also seem to lack acknowledgement of the larger power struggles playing out in society. Women like me have, in fact, scraped together a huge amount of cultural, economic, and institutional power and privilege. There are millions of women in this country (and the world) whose social conditioning has been more toxic than ours, and is combined with considerably more economic and institutional obstacles.

The victim narrative seems to imply that until we are free of all negative cultural conditioning, we cannot be expected to take responsibility for our action, or inaction. If we believe this, what does that mean for people who have received more negative cultural conditioning: women of color, men of color, gay and trans people?

By encouraging us to frame ourselves as powerless, the narrative of victimization seems to reduce our responsibility to protect ourselves, and obliterate our responsibility to engage in political struggles with those who have even less access to power. 

It seems to me that in order to further the larger struggle for equal rights, we must reject the narrative that because we are not yet equal, we are powerless.

 4) The problem of shame.

One of the questions the media seems to be doing a poor job of grappling with is that of why this seeming “epidemic” is happening at all. In a stunning display of pseudo-journalistic bullshittery, the New York Times put it this way:

“How are we supposed to create an equal world when male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal?”

Rather than dignifying that regressive, biologically-deterministic, downright stupid question, how about we answer some different ones. Like:

“Why is all of this coming out now?”

This cultural sea change is only possible because of the legal and institutional sea change that has taken place over the past century. The movements for suffrage, civil rights, reproductive rights, and rights and protections for women in the workplace have given us a world that is almost unrecognizable from that of our foremothers. We can vote, own property, enter any college or profession we like, and decide for ourselves whether and how to marry, have sex, or have children. We can even (and this one is fairly recent) sue and collect damages for workplace sexual harassment.

None of those statements would have been true one hundred years ago. 

I say this to point out that we are part of history, and history is still happening. This wave of cultural change is part of the larger story of the struggle for equal rights. The policies and laws we pass have an enormous effect on culture, which plays out over generations; and the culture we create has an enormous effect on future policy and law.

Here’s another good question:

“People are assholes in all kinds of ways. Why is regular assholery different from sexual assholery?”

I’d argue that there are two reasons.

The first reason is that sexual assholery, especially when performed by a male perpetrator upon a female victim, is part of a historical context in which sex (and related issues like birth control, reproductive health, abortion and motherhood) is the primary battleground on which the war on women takes place. Sex has been used to control, devalue and silence women for actual millennia, and we are dealing with the legacy of that tradition every day of our lives. This is the conversation we are beginning to have in the culture at large, which is long-awaited and much-needed.

The second reason is shame.

Sexual assholery strikes us as more serious, dangerous, and shameful than general, everyday assholery, because we have not yet shaken our belief in the inherent danger and shamefulness of sex itself.

How can it possibly be more hurtful to touch someone’s breast than to punch them in the face?

How can it be a resignation-worthy offense for a senator to put his hand on a woman’s butt, but business-as-usual for a senator to go home for Christmas without renewing funding for CHIP (which provides access to basic medical care for 9 million low-income children)?

In part, because when someone commits an act of sexual assholery (and this is also true of sexual assault, harassment, and rape), they are weaponizing the shame that is already inside us.

And shame – especially for women – is so incredibly powerful, deep-seated, and all-encompassing, that we will do almost anything to keep it hidden.

Which is why it is a revolutionary act - and a stride towards ending sexual violence - to become shameless. 

5) The problem of what to do.

When we lose sight of the broader struggles taking place – in this case, the battles for women’s rights AND for sexual freedom and justice for sexual minorities – we risk making the wrong legal and institutional changes, and those changes bring with them a legacy that lasts for many generations (as in the case of sex offender registries).

Laws and policies that are evidence-based, rather than driven by panic and moralism, typically do a better job at improving people’s lives.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of evidence we might use to make laws about sexual behavior:

-Decriminalizing sex work may reduce sexual violence by 30% (and some STDs by 40%).

-“Sexual Assault Resistance Training” for female college students may reduce rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault by almost half.

-Proactive counselling and group therapy for pedophiles seems to prevent child sexual abuse more effectively than mandatory reporting and sex offender registration.

-Comprehensive sex education has been shown repeatedly to reduce unprotected sex, unintended pregnancies, and the spread of STDs.

- Because this is my favorite statistic and everyone should have it on hand: abortion rates are about the same worldwide, regardless of legality (but where abortion is illegal, more women die from botched abortions). The only thing that has been shown to reduce abortion rates is access to free contraception.

I don’t know yet how this will play out, and it’s possible that this sea change is, in fact, entirely healthy, and will result in a greater measure of justice for all involved. But I do know that panic and righteous indignation do not, historically, produce good legislation. So I can’t help but implore us to, first of all, stop panicking. 

Other than that, here are my humble suggestions:

Continue to report, litigate, and speak out about sexual assault and harassment. This will help to improve our legal and institutional processes for handling accusations, which should be our #1 priority if we hope to stop the Weinsteins of the world.

Continue to hire and elect women and sexual minorities into positions of institutional, legal and political power. This will continue to change sexual culture in the workplace and in society, and to dismantle the hierarchies that protect harassers and abusers.

Talk about sex and sexual abuse using precise, shame-free language; continue to normalize and celebrate healthy sex (in all of its myriad forms); and maintain a commitment to evidence and data especially when dealing with sex. This will give us a head start if we hope to outrun our history of using sex panic to inform bad policy.

When dealing with assholes and fuckwits: personal confrontation should be our first line of defense. Although it is scary, I believe this is our best chance at changing sexual culture for the better without furthering the cause of the sexual moralists. As a bonus, it will make us braver, stronger, and less ashamed.

Incinerate the bullshit inside us, and cultivate a sense of sexual and personal power. This will change our relationship to sex and shame, disempower abusers, and allow us to better protect ourselves and each other.

If you ask me: women are ferocious beasts. We have the power not just to say “yes” or “no”, but to uphold or dismantle the patriarchy, capitalism, and perhaps the world as we know it. 

If we think of ourselves not as helpless victims, but as the keepers of a considerable quantity of personal and political power, the question then becomes: what are we going to do with it?


*View this post on my blog*

This piece was inspired by the following works:

Sex Panic and the Punitive State by Roger Lancaster

The Politics of Sexual Harassment by Linda Gordon

When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic? by Masha Gessen  

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Dan Savage’s ongoing refusal to panic.

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Vertigo, Bacchanalia, and the Art of the Controlled Burn

How to set your life on fire without blowing it up, and why you might want to.

Vertigo is the wobbly feeling you get on the top of a building (or when you’re sick or drunk), often described as the feeling that you might fall. I’ve always experienced vertigo, however, as the feeling that I might jump. Apparently, psychologists have recently recognized this urge-to-jump, dubbed it the High Place Phenomenon, and determined that it’s fairly common, even among us happy-go-lucky, generally non-suicidal types.

I’ve experienced a similar urge when driving at night (the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic), and when holding a baby (the urge to drop the baby). After brushing up on my psychology texts, I feel confident enough in the normalcy of these urges to share them with you, right here in black and white (even though my sister might read this, perhaps while holding my fresh new gorgeous baby niece). 

I’m not actually going to jump off the building or swerve into traffic or drop the baby (fear not, dear sister!); there’s just something in the human psyche that can’t help but ask: what if you went ahead and ruined everything?

For the purposes of this piece, I’d like to extend the metaphor and say that I also experience vertigo as it pertains to my day-to-day life: the urge to blow up my mental health, my career, my money, and/or my marriage. I’ve thought, “what if instead of warming up my voice before this very-important show, I just drank this whole bottle of Jack?” or, “What if instead of paying my bills this month, I bought this airstream trailer off of Craigslist?” or, “what if instead of going home to my husband, I went home with that greasy-looking drummer? We could start a cover band, right here in Johnson City, and have eight kids, and plant an orchard full of peaches, like in that John Prine song.”

And again, it’s not that I really want to play a sloppy-drunken show, or have eight kids. In fact, I emphatically don’t want either of those things. It’s the vertiginous feeling that the workaday banalities of being a pretty happy person with a pretty decent life could be… spiced up, shall we say… by throwing a nice fat hand grenade smack into the garden party.

The Controlled Burn

A controlled burn is when somebody (usually a farmer or park ranger) sets fire to a piece of land on purpose, as a technique for “land management”. Controlled burns have been used for millennia, by all kinds of people all over the world. Wikipedia says, “controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fire”.

In other words, a controlled burn is a cute little manageable wildfire that people set on purpose, so that their homes and crops won’t be destroyed later by a bigger, angrier, less-manageable wildfire.

So in the spirit of the controlled burn, folks, I’m here today with a proposal. The next time you get that drop-the-baby, bang-the-drummer, hand-grenade-at-the-garden-party vertigo feeling:

What if you went ahead and ruined a few things?

Orgies, Carnivals, and Bacchanalia

Another thing that people around the world have done for millennia is dress up in costumes and go to parties to drink, fight, bang, yell, and sing all night, in relative anonymity.

One of my favorite historical examples of this phenomenon are The Bacchanalia, which became an “epidemic” in Rome around 200BC. According to some Roman guy called Livy (writing a couple centuries after-the-fact), the Bacchic cult - to the scandal of some echelons of Roman society - held “five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes; featuring wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals.”

Sure, we frown upon this sort of thing now. 

But on the other hand, we still have bars, and clubs, and festivals, and internet porn, and sex clubs and theme parks and Halloween. And some of us lucky bastards even have Mardi Gras, which is a direct descendent of the pagan orgiastic traditions of Europe (co-opted and packaged for resale by this other, tres-popular European religious cult called Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it)). What are these things if not modern society’s attempt to contain and mollify those nasty little anti-social urges?

We humans are prone to revelry: drunkenness, violence, sex, shouting, singing, jumping from high places. We’ve tried for millennia, but we can’t seem to quit.

You can dress up us in suits, give us jobs and families to manage, and wedge us into churches and communities, but those urges still crackle just beneath the surface, threatening to burn us alive. If we don’t have a war to spend them on, you’d better give us a Bacchanal, or, by golly, we’ll make one of our own - and it might not be so elegantly contained.

The Bacchanalia, in other words, were a controlled burn.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a much-needed weekend retreat. We had just weathered a fairly major accidental wildfire, and although we managed to escape with most of our valuables, our ten-year partnership was feeling a bit brittle. We rented a cabin, packed up the dogs, and drove to the gulf coast.

The cabin didn’t have wifi or cable, but they had a TV with a primo selection of DVDs such as The Fast and The Furious, Madagascar 2, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 2005 one, not the Hitchcock). So, after eating a lot of gulf shrimp, we hunkered down on the couch and popped one into the player.

In case you’ve forgotten this (admittedly pretty forgettable) movie: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about a married couple who – although they happen to be the hottest human beings on earth (Brad & Angelina, in the role that landed them in an actual marriage) – are deeply ensconced in their domesticity, bored with each other, and no longer having sex.

(I can’t help but wonder, in the aftermath of Brangelina, whether their real-life marriage ever entered the too-bored-for-sex phase. It seems crazy, I know, but you have to admit  the possibility that it did. If that’s not a good argument for the stultifying power of domesticity, I don’t know what is!)

Over the course of the film, we find out that John and Jane Smith are actually both assassins, working for rival firms. Upon discovering each other’s identities, they are assigned the task of killing each other. They don’t, but before we are sure that they won’t, they have literally blown up their beautiful house, their fancy cars, and all their rich-people-stuff, with the extensive secret artillery they both had hidden in the oven/basement/closet. Not that shockingly, destroying their domestic life reminds them that they are married to the hottest human beings on earth, and their passion is re-ignited.

Mediocre though it was, I found myself laughing maniacally throughout the movie, and eventually bursting into tears.

“Bud,” I said (because that’s what we call each other), “I think we need to blow up our house.” 

We’re no Brangelina, sure. But like lots of couples, we’d been lulled by domestic bliss into a kind of stupor, and lost track of the fact that we are both super-sexy assassins. 

A Tiny Hand Grenade

So here’s my proposal.

Perhaps happiness cannot be achieved just by building a perfect domestic life; a life of daily exercise and organic juicing, with zero debt and a “landing strip” by the door with a little basket for your keys. 

Maybe it can’t be achieved even by building a perfect artistic life, full of inspiration and gobs of time to write; the sweet husband, two cuddly dogs, and a little studio in the backyard, with pots of succulents and a hundred-year-old guitar.

Perhaps building these lives of order and comfort will not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, we should be aiming to build lives that can withstand a little Bacchanalia.

I’m not sure what your particular Bacchanalia is, but I know this: it’s not something that falls roundly within the boundaries of domestic arrangements and socially acceptable behavior. It’s not a pedicure, or one Mimosa at brunch on the weekend. It’s something that scares you a little, and probably scares your family and your friends. It’s something ugly and shocking, and tantalizing and indulgent, and maybe confusing and inexplicable. It’s something your heart and body wants that your mind probably can’t fathom.

Do you already know what it is?

I’m proposing that true happiness might be found only by making room for that nasty, scary, shocking thing, right there inside your cute little life.

It’s finding a way to pay the bills and buy the airstream trailer, or (my personal favorite) bang the drummer and go home to the husband. It’s throwing just an ever-so-tiny grenade into the garden party, perhaps the itty-bitty grenade of your true personality and your actual feelings and thoughts, such as ‘fuck this garden party, I’m going home to watch Housewives and work on my dinosaur sculpture’, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, my little wildfires, sometimes something has got to burn. Wouldn’t we be better off if we named it now, and lit it up ourselves, instead of waiting until we are engulfed in flames? 



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