Sex Sells…But Not For Social Causes?

Given all the attention levied at social justice groups like PETA and FEMEN — both of which are notable for their use of female nudity during protests and campaigns — one would think the tactic has merit. After all, these and other groups are obviously trying to garner attention, and raising awareness is central to addressing any number of causes.

However, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon points to some research from Australia that confirms what many critics — even those sympathetic to these causes — have long pointed out: that the use of sex does little to further these campaigns, and if anything harms them:

Two new University of Queensland studies on “Using Sexualized Images of Women” have found that when subjects view sexy PETA ads, “Intentions to support the ethical organization were reduced for those exposed to the sexualized advertising” and “that behaviors helpful to the ethical cause diminished after viewing the sexualized advertisements.” In one of the studies, researchers found that men who viewed the ads were likely to report arousal (shocker), but that they were no likelier to support the cause itself. Renata Bongiorno, the lead researcher on both studies, says, ”There’s a negative link between dehumanization and the treatment of others, it reduces concern.… If you are using images that are dehumanizing, it’s likely to backfire.”

Williams goes on to note that merely gaining attention isn’t enough, and that social justice groups need to lead by example or find other creative ways to raise awareness besides realizing on (mostly) female nudity.

But attention is not support. Headlines don’t end animal cruelty or cure cancer, or, in the case of Miley, increase public sensitivity to say, breastfeeding mothers. “Awareness” is a self-serving, largely meaningless term, a rationalization for petty, demeaning stunts. This new research supports the nagging feeling many of us have held for years – that rather than filling people with warm helpful feelings, the true byproduct of using women’s bodies as window dressing appears to be boners.  Advertising consultant Jane Caro tells the Canberra Times, ”Sex only sells if you are trying to sell sex.” You want to sell ethics? Try using ethical behavior.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts?

The Cold War Fought By Women

The New York Times has a great piece that explores the nature of female competitiveness, which has long been poorly understood due to the widespread notion that competition is an innately male trait. My time is sadly short, so I’ll just leave you to read the core elements of this interesting piece, particularly the parts I’ve bolded for emphasis. As always, share your comments and reactions below.

The old doubts about female competitiveness derived partly from an evolutionary analysis of the reproductive odds in ancient polygynous societies in which some men were left single because dominant males had multiple wives. So men had to compete to have a chance of reproducing, whereas virtually all women were assured of it.

But even in those societies, women were not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners and more resources for their children. And now that most people live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men. In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many college campuses with more women than men.

To see how female students react to a rival, researchers brought pairs of them into a laboratory at McMaster University for what was ostensibly a discussion about female friendships. But the real experiment began when another young woman entered the room asking where to find one of the researchers.

This woman had been chosen by the researchers, Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, because she “embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,” meaning a “low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.” Sometimes, she wore a T-shirt and jeans, other times a tightfitting, low-cut blouse and short skirt.

In jeans, she attracted little notice and no negative comments from the students, whose reactions were being secretly recorded during the encounter and after the woman left the room. But when she wore the other outfit, virtually all the students reacted with hostility.

They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One asked her in disgust, “What the [expletive] is that?”

Most of the aggression, though, happened after she left the room. Then the students laughed about her and impugned her motives. One student suggested that she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another said that her breasts “were about to pop out.”

The results of the experiment jibe with evidence that this “mean girl” form of indirect aggression is used more by adolescents and young women than by older women, who have less incentive to handicap rivals once they marry. Other studies have shown that the more attractive an adolescent girl or woman is, the more likely she is to become a target for indirect aggression from her female peers.

“Women are indeed very capable of aggressing against others, especially women they perceive as rivals,” said Dr. Vaillancourt, now a psychologist at the University of Ottawa. “The research also shows that suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by men.”

Stigmatizing female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other research suggest the stigma is enforced mainly by women.

“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”

Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say that it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images.

“To a large degree the media reflects trends that are going on in society, not creates them,” said Dr. Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University. He found that women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies did not correlate with what they watched on television at home. Nor were they influenced by TV programs shown in laboratory experiments: Watching the svelte actresses on “Scrubs” induced no more feelings of inferiority than watching the not-so-svelte star of “Roseanne.”

But he found that women were more likely to feel worse when they compared themselves with peers in their own social circles, or even if they were in a room with a thin stranger, like the assistant to Dr. Ferguson who ran an experiment with female college students. When she wore makeup and sleek business attire, the students were less satisfied with their own bodies than when she wore baggy sweats and no makeup. And they felt still worse when there was an attractive man in the room with her.

“Sexual competition among females seems to increase due to circumstances that tend to be particularly common in affluent societies,” Dr. Ferguson said.

In traditional villages, people married at an early age to someone nearby, but young men and women in modern societies are free to postpone marriage as they search long and far for better options. The result is more competition because there are so many more rivals — and there’s no longer any scientific doubt that both sexes are in to win it.

Five Reasons Why Sexual Assault is So Pervasive

Courtesy of Soraya Chemaly of Salon

First, sexual assault on college campuses happens in environments of overwhelming cultural and institutional tolerance that support discriminatory double standards.  While the overall rate of sexual assault in the US has declined since the late 1970s, it has stayed constant on US campuses.  The Center for Public Policy and the Department of Justice estimate that 95% of college sexual assaults are not reported because victims, regardless of sex, gender or sexuality, do not have confidence that they will be believed, that their schools will help them and that they won’t be humiliated and shamed. Our culture essentially gives rapists the message that they’re entitled to be believed and respected; their victims aren’t.

Since women’s basic right to bodily integrity seems to confuse some people, let’s talk about sexual assault that involves men and boys.  Decades of Catholic Church sexual abuse tragedies, the Boy ScoutsPenn Staterape in correctional facilitiessexual assault in the military, recurring episodes at high schools around the country are all examples of entitlement to rape in the face of institutional tolerance.

These cases all involve situations where people, usually men, with uncontested power use that power to abuse more vulnerable people.  Their victims are vulnerable not only because they are smaller or younger, and certainly not because they are drunk, but because they lack cultural power – the power to be believed or have their rights of bodily integrity respected by society. Sometimes, those people are children; other times they’re men. Much more often, however, they are young girls and women.  Alcohol only highlights deeply rooted ideas about who has the right act with impunity.   As Jaclyn Friedman explained five years ago, drinking “is not a risk for nearly half the population. I’ve never met a straight man who worried about being raped as he contemplated a night of debauchery. Vomiting in public? Yes. Getting rejected by sexual prospects? Sure. Getting in a fight? Maybe. Getting raped? Come on.”

A false accusation of rape is, indeed, a fearsome prospect. But the likelihood of being falsely accused of rape are no different from that of being falsely accused of any other crime. And women are far more likely to be raped than men are to be falsely accused. The insistence on treating the two as equally prevalent issues is ….an entitlement.

Secondly, sexual assault on campus is related to high rates of other forms of gendered violence on campus.  Gender-based violence includes not just sexual assault, but intimate partner violence and stalking.  College-aged women are at highest risk for all of these forms of violence.  Decades of research and work clearly reveal that the defining characteristic of perpetrators of these crimes is entitlement. Perpetrators are people who believe they are “owed” something because of who they are or what they’ve done are the most likely to commit difference-based violence.

Third, people arrive at college with ideas and experiences. According to a study released earlier this month, one in ten people between the ages of 14-21 have already committed an act of sexual violence. Boys are more likely to have been perpetrators, although the older girls get, the more likely they are to become perpetrators too. However, 80% of victims in the study were girls — 18% were boys and 5% were transgender youth. Three quarters of those admitting to using coercion or physical pressure targeted someone they knew or were in a relationship with.  15% said they used alcohol to do it.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the study however was that these children felt no sense of responsibility for their actions. What does this have to do with entitlement? The likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence was not equal across all groups.  The teenagers with the highest propensity to sexually assault a peer were white kids from higher-income families.

Fourth, we cannot talk about sexual assault and broader violence in schools without discussing athletics, both before and during college. While male student athletes make up 3.3% of the U.S. college population, they are responsible for 19% percent of sexual assaults and 37% of domestic violence cases on college campuses. In the wake of the Steubenville rape case, but before so many others, like the more recent case in Maryville, The Nation’s Dave Zirin called for a serious questioning of “the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture.” The core characteristics of high-status boys’ sports – violence, dominance, power, specialness and impunity – are married seamlessly to the marginalization and sexual objectification of girls and women as trophies and playthings. It is possible to cultivate a healthy sense of fraternity without the denigration and victimization of girls and LGBT youth, but that’s not what’s happening.

For the last 25 years, while the incidence of rape has declined, gang rapes by younger and younger men have been on the rise. And perpetrators now derive even greater power and status from photographing and sharing evidence of their assaults. What does entitlement look like, if not being so confident you’ll get away with a crime that you crow about it on social media?   Sports participation does NOT turn boys into rapists. However, participation in high-level, all-male sports cultures is correlated with sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

Fifth, people come from families and families are riven with similar problems and not talking about them. Boys and girls are being sent off to college without parents ever discussing critical dilemmas, double standards,  power imbalances, cultural entitlements,  or even what it genuinely means to be empathetic.  It’s not just parents who themselves are struggling with alcohol, abuse and dysfunction that are a problem. It’s parents whose reluctance to speak openly about serious issues with children who also enable these problems to thrive.  People arrive at school with complicated histories shrouded in silence, shame, anger and incoherence. Our reluctance to extend our concepts of justice to include the family spills over into other institutions every day and college is one of the places where this is most evident.

An Excellent TED Talk About Violence

I wasn’t aware that there were women-centered TED conferences, but if they’re anything like the following video, I’m definitely going to start exploring for more. Social justice activist Jackson Kat discusses the important way in which we frame and discuss the pressing issue of domestic violence, and what man can and should do in this regard. The video caption is as follows:

Jackson Katz, Phd, is an anti-sexist activist and expert on violence, media and masculinities. An author, filmmaker, educator and social theorist, Katz has worked in gender violence prevention work with diverse groups of men and boys in sports culture and the military, and has pioneered work in critical media literacy. Katz is the creator and co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which advocates the ‘bystander approach’ to sexual and domestic violence prevention. You’ve also seen him in the award winning documentary “Miss Representation.”

Thankfully, he discusses the unique “bystander approach” strategy, which I have never heard of until this video. As usual, feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section.

Why People Distrust Rape Victims

Perhaps the only thing as tragic and horrific as being a victim of sexual assault, is enduring the stigma, distrust, and doubts concerning your experience. Despite the rarity of false rape allegations, most victims still struggle with being treated as if they’re the criminals.  Why is this so? Is it solely the lingering consequences of historically sexist attitudes towards women — namely that they’re prone to hysteria, dishonesty, and being manipulative?

Well, it turns out that psychology plays a role as well, as discussed in a Slate article entitled “Why Cops Don’t Believe Rape Victims.

Using imaging technology, scientists can identify which parts of the brain are activated when a person contemplates a traumatic memory such as sexual assault. The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility—a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state. These types of withdrawal result from extreme fear yet often make it appear as if the victim did not resist the assault.

This is why, experts say, sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. “That’s simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant who trains civilian and military law enforcement to understand victim and offender behavior.

The seemingly suspicious behavior that results from these brain mechanics is exacerbated by the way law enforcement naturally operates.

In contrast, police officers with no specialized training often antagonize victims as they zero in on discrepancies. It’s understandable: Cops learn to interview victims based on interrogation practices, which emphasize establishing a timeline and key facts. But what may seem like good police work, Lisak says, can lead a detective to press victims in a way that yields misleading or false information, as they prematurely try to piece together fragmented memories.

Cops must also learn that trauma influences victims in ways law enforcement won’t necessarily understand. One notorious example is victims’ flat affect. This always puzzled senior officer Holly Whillock, a 13-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. She expected victims to be enraged or visibly anguished, but instead they spoke coolly, without emotion.

So even when you take away the cultural and social biases that exist towards rape victims, there are still institutional and psychological factors at work that need to be addressed. Officers, if not the wider populace, need to understand how trauma affects people, what to expect from it, and how best to address it. It won’t be easy of course — changing such paradigms never is — but it’s not impossible, and there are a lot of lives at stake.

The Woman Who Dared to Drive

Two years ago, Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif dared to defy her nation’s de facto ban against female drivers, enduring jail, mockery, and even death threats — but also helping to catalyze a woman’s rights movement. She describes her ordeal and the ensuing aftermath in this excellent and moving 14-minute TED Talk.

My heart and support goes out to her and all the women like her who are affecting positive social and political change against very difficult odds.

Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Roles

Though I don’t discuss it on this blog as often as I should, human sexuality is a fascinating topic to me. Indeed, I think it deserves far more attention and open discussion than it receives, and I lament how taboo and misunderstood our sexual natures are (though our society, at least, seems to be increasingly open to talking about these things).

Indeed, as much as many of us don’t care to admit it, sexuality is a central concern in human existence: like all animals, we are sexual by nature, and like all social animals in particular, sexuality is a major component in our identity, relationships, and well-being. We’ve been socially-conditioned to view sex as a debased or even unfortunate aspect of human nature, to the extent that many of us don’t even like to confront our sexuality privately.

Needless to say, all this can have some unhealthy implications and consequences, so I’m pleased to see a well-written article in AlterNet that addresses not only the unfortunate result of our sexual misapprehension, but that also reveals how dated concepts of gender roles only complicate matters further. The article discusses the long-existent (but of course largely undiscussed) disparity between male and female sexual satisfaction — what it curtly calls the “orgasm gap” — in which less than 25% of women actually orgasm from “traditional” intercourse.

Freudian echoes, anatomical mischaracterizations and gender stereotypes are part of the logic naturalizing the orgasm gap, but there is nothing natural about it. We know this because women who sleep with women have many more orgasms than heterosexual women, almost as many as men who sleep with women. Women also have no problem experiencing orgasm through masturbation and the same women who frequently have orgasms during masturbation report many fewer orgasms when they’re with a partner. Men are also not faster to climax than women; it takes women the same amount of time to orgasm during masturbation as it takes men, on average, to have an orgasm through intercourse: four minutes.

Setting aside how surprising a lot of that data must be — given that it’s contrary to everything we learn and understand about the sexual nature of men and women — what accounts for such a seemingly unusual disparity? Well, the article offers an interesting explanation:

Instead of being driven by biology, women’s rate of orgasm relative to men is a function of social forces. For one, we often bifurcate the sexual experience in line with gender norms: men are sexual (they experience desire) and women are sexy (they inspire desire). The focus on men’s internal wants and sensations also draws our attention to his satisfaction. Thus his orgasm, but not necessarily hers, becomes a critical part of what must happen for a sexual encounter to be successful and fulfilling. This is part of why intercourse – a sexual act that is strongly correlated with orgasm for men – is the only act that almost everyone agrees counts as “real sex,” whereas activities that are more likely to produce orgasm in women are considered optional foreplay.

Meanwhile, the idea that women’s primary goal in sex is to deliver a sexy body can focus her attention on how she looks instead of how she feels. This can lead to spectating, being worried about how she looks from her partner’s perspective, which decreases the chance a woman will have an orgasm. It can also lead to active avoidance of orgasm because of worries her face or body might do something unattractive.

I recommend reading the whole piece so as to get detailed understanding of the issue and its proposed solutions. Basically, the takeaway seems to be that we’ve created this artificial notion of what counts as “true sex” at the expense of women and, by extension, men (since one sexually unfulfilled partner can lead to a troubled relationship). Instead of obsessing over what supposedly should be done based on what social norms dictate, we should simply be pragmatic and do what works for both partners. That includes being honest about what works and what doesn’t.

Granted, I think a lot more people are more avant garde about their sexual lives than they’re willing to admit. The problem is that there is this pressure to conform to a certain social norm that a lot (if not most) people privately know is untrue. It’s sad to see relationships suffer because we’re trying to appeal to some arbitrary, dated, and sexist (to men and women) notion of sex that shouldn’t matter in the bedroom anyway.

Regardless, I’ve seen men and women alike feel guilty about not being able to orgasm through traditional intercourse, even though they pull it off just fine through other means. Basically, if it’s not “real sex.” it doesn’t matter whether or not it works — it’s still upsetting to the individuals pride or sense of masculinity/femininity.


Judging Women in Media

I hate the way women in media are judged immediately —  and sometimes almost exclusively — by their appearance. Throughout my life, whether I’m watching a music video, TV show, interview, or movie, there’s always at least one person around me – if not several – who criticizes a female character or public figure for some trivial physical feature. Continue reading

Weekly News Wire

  • Is rapid population growth to blame for rising violence and terrorism in certain countries? An article in Foreign Policy cites a correlation, suggesting that the that problem requires not a military solution, but a public health one. 
  • A recent study shared by Raw Story found that, contrary to popular belief, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus – in other words, neither gender is inflexibly different from the other. While gender differences exist to some degree, they’re hardly iron law.
  • The BBC reports that bonobo apes, long known for their human-like display of empathy and emotion, demonstrate seemingly complex emotional behaviors – such as hugging and having sex for pleasure – even at a young age. It was previously believed that it would take sophisticated cognitive skills to do such things.
  • NBC has obtained a chilling Department of Justice memo that outlines the legal case of assassinating American citizens through drone strikes. The document concludes that the US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force,” regardless of whether there is any evidence that they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US.
  • A study by the VA , reported in the Washington Post, has found that veteran suicides have hit record highs. Most of these veterans are in their 50s and served in Vietnam. What’s even more distressing is that this reflects a much wider national trend – suicides in the US increased 11% between 2007 and 2010.
  • To make matters more complicated, another report in Foreign Policy raises questions about whether the growing media attention on veteran and military suicides is actually making the problem worse. Known as the “contagion” or “Werther”  effect this long-observed phenomenon links increased reporting and publicity of suicides to an increase in suicides. The reasons are poorly understood, but it certainly makes an already difficult issue more challenging.