Category Archives: sex in media

Tomb Raider Review: A Moderate Leap, But Major Progress


Earlier this year, I expressed a sincere hope that the new “Tomb Raider” movie would finally do something that no other video game movie had managed to do. I hoped that it would be to video game movies what the original “X-men” was to modern superhero movies. I’d even hoped that Lara Croft could be to video game characters what “Wonder Woman” was to female superheroes.

That last one might have been hoping for too much, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Hollywood get at least one movie based on a video game really right. Between the lackluster “Resident Evil” movies and the god-awful “Super Mario Bros,” the genre is overdue for a hit.

I get that there are challenges associated with making a movie out of a video game. However, Lara Croft and “Tomb Raider” is in a better position than most. It’s a franchise that has an iconic character who has built a strong fanbase over the course of two decades. The fact that she’s a strong, sexy female character at a time when the appetite for such characters is greater than ever works even more to her benefit.

While Lara Croft’s sex appeal has been controversial in recent years, she’s still a great character whose games already have a very cinematic feel. Having played her 2013 game multiple times, I can attest to the strength of that narrative. It has all the necessary elements that translate well to a movie.

This movie, being a franchise that has already attempted twice with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s to mixed success, seems to make a better effort than most to succeed where so many have fail. This version of “Tomb Raider” works hard to tell a real, serious story on par with that of any other successful action franchise. It tries to do this while still incorporating elements of the game into the narrative.

It’s ambitious and sincere. It also helps that it cast Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning actress whose brilliance and sex appeal in “Ex Machina” made her well-suited to the role. Criticisms of her having the necessary boobs for the role aside, Ms. Vikander can act and be sexy in her own right. It’s only a matter of whether she can channel that talent into making “Tomb Raider” succeed where so many others have failed.

Well, having seen the movie on its opening weekend, I’d like to offer my assessment on this matter. While I’ll always be haunted, to some extent, by terrible video game movies like “Super Mario Bros,” I went in feel genuinely hopeful for this movie. I was also bracing myself, knowing as well as anyone the history of video game movies.

With that mentality going into the theater, I eagerly gave “Tomb Raider” and Alicia Vikander the benefit of the doubt. By the time I came out of the theater, I was able to come to a simple conclusion, albeit one with a few caveats.

Yes, this is a good movie, but it’s not a game-changer.

It’s true. “Tomb Raider” is an genuinely good video game movie. I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to say that with a straight face in my lifetime, but I can and it’s worth saying again. This is a good movie.

By that, I mean the movie has a concise, well-crafted story from start to finish. The movie establishes who Lara Croft is, what she’s dealing with, and what kind of person she is. The plot isn’t too messy. The effects aren’t too cheesy. The acting is actually good and not just from Ms. Vikander. Everyone in this movie seems to make a real, honest effort.

Like the 2013 video game, the movie follows a young, inexperienced Lara Croft who has yet to become the sexy badass that went onto inspire so much lurid fan art. However, by the end of the movie, you can already see traces of that sexy badass growing within her. As a character, she grows and evolves over the course of the movie. Watching her grow and seeing her struggle at times is genuinely compelling.

The story and the details surrounding it are tight and well-organized. At no point in the movie is there a scene that feels random, contrived, or forced. The events that unfold happen organically, from Lara getting arrested early in the movie to unlocking the secrets to an ancient tomb on the hidden island of Yamatai. Nothing ever just happens. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the story.

It’s a story that is not bland or predictable, even to those who played the 2013 game multiple times, like I did. The movie downplays some of the more mystical elements of Lara Croft’s mythos, but still incorporates plenty of the over-the-top machinations that Tomb Raider and “Indiana Jones” fans alike can appreciate.

However, it’s that effort to make the movie feel less fanciful that, in my opinion, keeps it from being the kind of game-changing movie that “X-men” and “Wonder Woman” were. While “Tomb Raider” qualifies as a good movie, it doesn’t do enough to be a truly great movie.

This movie, in many respects, plays it safe. While it puts Lara through plenty of tough situations, things never get too dire for her. She’s allowed to suffer and endure wounds, but only to a point. Others, including her father as played by Dominic West, arguably endure a whole lot more.

Safe or not, it’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t try to do too much all at once. Movies that do that tend to get messy, as many recent Michael Bay films can attest. I think “Tomb Raider” did the right thing, playing it safe and keeping things simple. It left some of its potential on the table, but did plenty to leave much of that potential available for future sequels.

That’s somewhat of a gamble, though. Too many movies, these days, are made solely with sequels in mind and sometimes that assumes too much. Anyone who saw “Green Lantern” or “The Mummy” can attest to that. At least with “Tomb Raider,” the ending and the revelations it offers actually leave you feeling excited for a sequel.

That’s a gamble that may or may not pay off. I’m aware that this movie did not exactly set the box office on fire, especially in a market still dominated by “Black Panther.” However, it did manage to pull in some decent numbers overseas and that might give this movie the fuel it needs to become a full-fledged franchise.

Again, the movie does have flaws. If you go into “Tomb Raider” looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll find them. If you think Ms. Vikander wasn’t sexy enough, you’ll find points in the movie to vindicate that. Conversely, if you think Ms. Vikander was too sexy and her portrayal in this movie is contributing to sexism and the objectification of women, you’ll find instances of that too.

If, however, you go in hoping for a good, coherent movie that tells a compelling, dramatic story, you’ll find that “Tomb Raider” delivers. In fact, I would argue that it delivers in ways no video game movie has ever managed before. It doesn’t do quite enough to be a new “Wonder Woman,” but it achieves far more than any previous video game movie has ever dared.

If I were to score this movie, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10 or a 7.5 out of 10 at the lowest. “Tomb Raider” has an opportunity to redefine a maligned movie genre and it succeeds. With other movies like “Rampage” coming out this year, the situation is ripe for a new generation of video game movies that aren’t terrible.

Whether your a fan of the games, a fan of action movies, or just looking for a great female character played by someone other than Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson, “Tomb Raider” will give you plenty to enjoy. It may still be a while before we can relegate movies like “Super Mario Bros” to the same dusty bin as “Batman and Robin,” but “Tomb Raider” offers a critical first step.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Movie Reviews, sex in media, video games

Why Sex Addiction (Probably) Doesn’t Exist


When it comes to human psychology, addiction is like quantum physics in that few understand it and Hollywood constantly gets it wrong. I know I say it a lot on this blog, but it’s worth belaboring. People are complicated. One person may watch “Star Wars” and think it’s the greatest piece of cinema of all time. Another may watch it and say it has no redeeming values.

That’s an important context to consider when discussing topics of addiction, which affects a significant portion of the human population. According to Addiction Center, there are approximately 20.6 million people over the age of 12 struggling with an addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 200,000 people have died since 1999 from prescription drug abuse alone.

Addiction is a serious issue. I know people who have struggled with addiction. I think everybody knows someone in their lives, be they a friend or relative, who has struggled with an addiction of some sorts. Addiction is real and there’s actual biology behind it. As such, it stands to reason that the rising instance of sexual addiction is real.

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Before I scrutinize this sexy, yet unsexy phenomenon, I need to preface this by acknowledging that our collective understanding of these issues is still developing. What we consider a psychological dysfunction today may end up just being a healthy variation within the diversity of human thought. That’s why homosexuality is no longer considered a disease.

That context is important to establish because the term “sex addict” has been thrown around a lot lately. It’s not quite on the level of “fake news” or “soy boy,” but it has been cropping up, especially in wake of the recent scandals in Hollywood. Both Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey claimed to be sex addicts after their scandals.

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Needless to say, not everybody buys that excuse. Given my propensity to bemoan excuses, I count myself among them. These men claiming that sex addiction caused their deplorable behavior comes off as a pitiful attempt to gain sympathy, trying to paint themselves as sick. It also assumes a lot about the complex nature of addiction.

It’s true that we can become addicted to damn near anything, but it’s not just a matter of one particular activity flooding the pleasure centers of our brain more than others. Alcoholics don’t get the same orgasmic release from a cold beer that a sex addict gets from a quickie in the shower. There are other psychological forces behind it.

Since we can’t yet read the minds of an individual person, we have only a cursory understanding of those forces. However, there is an established criteria for addiction within a medical context. The American Psychiatric Association, describes addiction as follows:

Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. They keep using alcohol or a drug even when they know it will causes problems.

At the same time, it establishes a clear difference between just being addicted to a certain activity, like sex, eating, or playing World of Warcraft for 29 hours straight, and the addiction caused by drugs. They don’t even call it addiction. They have a more official label called Substance Use Disorder. Their description of this condition is a lot scarier than just someone who has more orgasms than most.

People with a substance use disorder have distorted thinking, behavior and body functions. Changes in the brain’s wiring are what cause people to have intense cravings for the drug and make it hard to stop using the drug. Brain imaging studies show changes in the areas of the brain that relate to judgment, decision making, learning, memory and behavior control.

These substances can cause harmful changes in how the brain functions. These changes can last long after the immediate effects of the drug — the intoxication. Intoxication is the intense pleasure, calm, increased senses or a high caused by the drug. Intoxication symptoms are different for each substance.

I bring up this distinction because more than one person has described sex like a drug. In doing so, it’s easier to accept that those claiming to suffer from sex addiction have a real ailment. Sex is a powerful drive that evokes pleasure that some brain scans have compared to heroin. Does it not stand to reason that sex addicts are in the same boat as heroin addicts?

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The short answer is no. Sex addicts and heroin addicts are as different from one another as an arm-wrestling contest and an underground fight club. Addiction to heroin has a strict criteria for diagnosis. Sex addiction doesn’t meet that criteria in that alleged addicts don’t respond the same way that those suffering from Substance Use Disorder respond.

According to research done by UCLA, the reactions of those claiming porn addiction did not mirror those addicted to other activities like drinking, smoking, etc. Within that same research, it was also uncovered that sex addiction lacks one of the most important features of an addiction, namely that of diminished response from the pleasure centers of the brain.

That’s key because one of the most damaging factors of an addiction is that over time, the addictive behavior doesn’t light up the pleasure centers of the brain like it used to. That’s why alcoholics need more alcohol and crack addicts need more crack to get the same high. Brain scans show that in drug abuse. They don’t show it in sex addiction.

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In fact, the conclusions of the researchers on sex addiction were somewhat mundane. According to the data gathered from the brains and experiences of real people, the idea of sex addiction is nothing more than having a high sex drive and poor impulse control. That’s not an addiction. That’s a personality quirk. If anything, the very term “sex addiction” undermines the suffering of real addicts.

I know those conclusions is not going to convince those who genuinely believe that they’re struggling with sex addiction. I don’t doubt that these people are struggling and it’s negatively impacting their lives, their families, and their relationships. However, I believe putting it in the same category as drug abuse only skews our understanding of addiction and sexuality.

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Some people are really just a lot hornier than others. In the same way some people have a bigger appetite for food, some have a bigger appetite for sex. Unlike food, though, those suffering from eating disorders don’t blame the entire concept of food. There are often other psychological factors behind it.

Sex also has another complication that food and eating don’t. Our culture has an established set of sexual norms that idealize some forms of sexuality and shame others. Even though we’ve accepted more diversity in recent decades, we still idealize monogamous romances where those involved only have sex to make babies or explore the kind of passion reserved for a scene in “Titanic.”

As a result, anything that deviates from that narrative, be they an open relationship or just wanting to hump for the sake of humping, is subject to scorn or shaming. I’ve noted the flaws in this sort of narrative before, but on a much larger scale, it creates a situation where certain manifestations of sex become less a variation and more a disease.

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Like homosexuality, though, treating those variations as flawed or damaged doesn’t make them go away. It’s possible for a drug addict to get treatment to repair the damage those drugs have done to their bodies and minds. It’s not possible to complete reshape and remold someone’s baseline sexual desires without causing serious damage.

To really get an idea of how this can motivate self-professed sex addicts to engage in such erratic behaviors, imagine for a moment that you’re a heterosexual person in a world where only homosexuality is accepted. As such, you’re expected to enter a homosexual relationship with someone and remain in that relationship indefinitely.

That means you have to ignore or temper your basic sexual desires in order to operate in that society without shame or scrutiny. You have to pretend that the relationship you’re in is sufficient when you know it’s not. Since you can’t turn off your brain or your basic desires, it’s going to mess with your mind and inspire erratic behavior.

It’s for that reason that sex addiction, as it’s currently understood, probably doesn’t exist. I say probably because, as I pointed out earlier, our understanding of sexuality, psychology, and the human experience is still limited. For now, though, our conclusions are fairly simple. You’re not an addict. You’re just really horny and you live in a society that doesn’t afford you the opportunities to explore those feelings.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

A Better Way To Promote Diversity


How do you encourage meaningful change in media, culture, and social attitudes? That’s a reasonable and relevant question to ask these days. It seems everyone is either trying to push for greater diversity or whining about the lack thereof. More often than not, however, those efforts aren’t mutually exclusive.

Even if nobody has a definitive answer to the question of how, that hasn’t stopped many from trying. There have been major diversity pushes in every form of media from video games to comics to movies to TV shows. Not all of them have been successful. In some cases, they backfired horribly and cost people money.

I don’t want to belabor the specifics of those failures, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that they also have the effect of angering and/or insulting the audience. For franchises that have a huge fan base, that can be pretty detrimental. Some franchises never recover.

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It certainly doesn’t help that there are those who push for diversity for all the wrong reasons. There’s a very vocal contingent of critics/professional trolls who go out of their way to bemoan the lack of diversity in a certain piece of media. Whether it’s a video game having too many people of the same race or a lack of strong female characters, these people will whine about it as loud as the internet will allow.

For the most part, I don’t think anyone should give much attention to such whining. We’ve all dealt with whiny children at some point in our lives. Most people learn, often the hard way, that arguing with them rarely works out. Most people just give up to stop the whining. I’ve pointed out before why this can lead to bigger problems down the line.

It quickly becomes a brutal cycle. The more attention you give to these whiny children, the more incentive they have to whine so they can get what they want. The same applies to these “critics” who keep whining about diversity. It’s not enough for them that “Black Panther” is doing so well with a diverse cast. Some will still whine that it had no LGBT characters.

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It’s inescapable. You simply cannot win against a whiny child. No matter how much you go out of your way for them, they’ll find another reason to whine and so long as they keep getting their way, they’ll keep doing it. In the long run, though, that’s still a terrible way to promote diversity.

Ideally, producers of media will pursue diversity because they want to appeal to a broader audience. They want to make money and money doesn’t care about race, religion, or genital configuration. However, when critics/trolls rely on whining to get their way, then those efforts become less about diversity and more about stopping the whining.

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I believe there is a better way to promote diversity and it does not involve any whining. It doesn’t require some radical rethinking of how we go about producing, consume, or discussing media. It doesn’t even require some major protest, a new law, or diversity quotas. It’s just a simple change in approach that anyone can do for free and without that much effort.

That change can be summed up in two words: positive reinforcement. If you’ve taken a basic psychology class at any point in your education, you already know what this means. Even if you haven’t taken any classes and just deal with a lot of annoying people/children/whiners, you probably know the idea.

Rather than complaining about what is so bad about something, positive reinforcements involve focusing on the good. Rather than whine about what isn’t there, you celebrate what is there. Most importantly, though, you turn that outrage once reserved for those bad things into apathy. Most forms of media can survive outrage. They cannot survive apathy.

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To illustrate this approach, consider the following scenario that tends to play out whenever someone criticizes a movie, TV show, video game, etc. for a lack of diversity.

“Just look at this terrible affront to women, minorities, and LGBTQ people! It’s so racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic! It sends a terrible message and appeals to an audience that wants to cling to their regressive attitudes. It’s perpetuating a destructive, unhealthy mindset that directly impacts our culture. This affront should be censored, changed, or condemned endlessly until the world changes!”

Chances are, you’ve heard something like this over the past few years. Sometimes it involves a female character that doesn’t check the right boxes. Sometimes it involves a story that tries to check too many boxes. In any case, the whiners I mentioned earlier will find a reason to get upset about it. Moreover, they’ll demand some sort of change, coupled with condemnation over anyone who disagrees.

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That’s not going to promote diversity. If anything, that’s going to give people one too many reasons to resent pushes for diversity. Some media companies are already learning that the hard way, with Marvel being the most recent example. Ideally, you want someone to promote diversity because they want to and not because they’re afraid of a backlash.

With that in mind, here’s a second scenario that shows how positive reinforcement can further that effort.

“That thing some claim is racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? I don’t really care for that. Let me tell you about this other thing that I just think is amazing! I love it. It’s so much fun and it sends such a good message to men, women, and minorities of all kinds. I want more of this. I’m willing to pay for more of this. Please make more of this!”

It may come off as some peppy kid who is way too excited about something. Then again, wouldn’t you rather be around that kid instead of the one that whines to get what they want? When someone is happy and excited about something, it’s kind of infectious. It makes us want to share in that feeling.

Throw money into the mix and suddenly, the same producers that make all the media that regressive types whine about actually have a good incentive to promote diversity beyond just placating whiners. Instead of just avoiding controversy, they actually want to do diversity and do it right.

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The key is focusing on instances where it is done right. They are there. There have been plenty of examples of the media actually getting diversity right. They just don’t make the news because outrage is louder and garners more attention. Even so, excitement and praise can be just as loud.

Instead of complaining about Rey being a Mary Sue in “Star Wars,” focus on how great Princess Leia was in the first trilogy or how great Ahsoka Tano is in “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

Instead of complaining about Lara Croft being too sexy, focus on how great Samus Aran is in the Metriod games.

Instead of complaining about the lack of diversity on shows like “Seinfeld,” focus on how great the minority characters are in shows like “Fresh Off The Boat” or “House.”

It may not sound as vocal or satisfying as venting outrage about a flaw, but it sends the kind of message that others are more likely to want to get behind. Whereas positive feelings can have many benefits to yourself and those around you, venting outrage can be very unhealthy.

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In the long run, getting others to want to promote diversity is the best way to further it. Whining about it isn’t going to accomplish that. It’s just going to make others want to stop the whining. That may work for kids, but not functioning adults.

Movie producers, TV executives, comic book writers, and video game programmers alike are all still human at the end of the day. Human beings respond positively to positive feelings. Channel those feelings into promoting diversity and you won’t just get more of it. You’ll get people who are actually excited about producing it.

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Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sexuality, video games

The Law Of Proportional Backlash And The Anti-Harassment Movement


There comes a point in every social movement where the momentum seems unstoppable. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, racial equality, or finally having a female Dr. Who, there’s a sentiment that certain trends are just going to play out and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s a false impression, by the way. Human beings are complex, erratic, and fickle creatures. I’ve touched on this before and will likely bring it up again because human beings are just that interesting. That said, they can also be quite frustrating.

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When it comes to highlighting those qualities in the midst of an ongoing controversy, though, I have to be careful because I don’t want my points to get lost in the anger. I know as well as anyone else with an internet connection that digital outrage has a nasty habit of undermining meaningful dialog. I want to avoid that as much as possible cause this is one point I feel is worth making.

As I write this, the latest major social movement to combat sexism and sexual misconduct is close to that point I mentioned earlier. It’s still a very hot-button issue and I’ve tried to be fair in discussing it on this blog. However, the current momentum of this movement, which has the wholly noble goal of preventing harassment, is coming up against a force that reflects the eccentricities of human nature.

That force doesn’t have an official or scientific name, but it has many familiar components. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll label it as follows:

The Law Of Proportional Backlash

I’m not claiming this law is definitive or on the same level as the laws of relativity. To make sense of what’s going on, and what often happens with these social movements, it’s just helpful to have a unifying idea to tie it all together.

The essence of this law that I just randomly coined is pretty simple. It’s the human equivalent of Newton’s Third Law, which says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When it comes to social movements, though, the reaction is more than that. It’s can also be an outright backlash.

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To illustrate, you need only look at the frequency with which political parties gain and lose power. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, as society has become more connected, open, and diverse, these tendencies have played out with stunning regularity. It often plays out like this:

“Hey! The current social order isn’t the perfect, utopian society I want. Let’s kick the people in power out of office and put in these people making impossible promises to achieve impossible things.”

A few years later.

“Hey! These people we put in power haven’t created the perfect, utopian society I waned either. Let’s kick them out and put in other people in power who are also making impossible promises to achieve impossible things. Moreover, let’s hate, shame, and spit on the other side for failing to do all those impossible things!”

I fully concede that’s a very basic illustration of how political power fluctuates in the modern world. I also concede there are many variations, but in terms of the big picture, this is how the Law of Proportional Backlash works.

A movement begins, be it political or social. It gains momentum. Usually, there’s some sort of event that acts as a catalyst. With racial segregation, events like the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education helped get things going. With same-sex marriage, Massachusetts being the first state to legalize it did the same.

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For the current movement against sexism and sexual misconduct, I think most would point to either the 2016 presidential election or the Harvey Weinstein scandal as the catalyst. I would argue it’s a combination of both, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the movement gained a lot of momentum. If it could take down someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein, then it’s safe to say that movement is pretty strong.

As often happens, though, the momentum provokes backlash. That happens whenever a movement fails to achieve every goal and, spoiler alert, no movement ever achieves every goal. The world is too complex and impossible problems tend to frustrate human limitations. As a result, a movement has to overreach and that will spurn a backlash.

With the movement against sexual misconduct, there are plenty of signs of overreach. There are people scorning others for making reasonable arguments about there being a spectrum of harassment. Careers are being ruined on the basis of anonymous accusations and mixed messages that are impossible to discern.

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There was even a distressing article on BigThink that argued that crimes involving sexual violence should not be subject to the traditional standards of proof. The underlying reason for that is too many guilty people get away with their crimes so it’s worth the risk of punishing the innocent to remedy that issue.

It’s that kind of sentiment, one in which the proportion becomes increasingly extreme, that tends to hasten the backlash. Whenever a movement gets to a point it’s deemed appropriate to sacrifice innocent people for the sake of a cause, then that’s usually a sign that it’s reaching beyond its ideals and emboldening opponents.

There are already major news outlets reporting on that phenomenon. Publications like the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and even the liberal Huffington Post have discussed it in various forms. The reactions to those speaking out against sexual misconduct is no longer one of unity and support. Now, there’s criticism and animosity, the first signs of a real backlash.

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Those behind the movement need only look at the LGBT movement to see what that backlash can entail. Even though same-sex marriage is legal, the resulting backlash triggered a surge in “religious freedom” bills that promoted a new kind of discrimination. That backlash is still ongoing. The one surrounding sexual misconduct may just be getting started.

I still don’t doubt the sincerity and ideals behind the movement against sexual misconduct. People want justice for those who have been victimized. Justice is an inherent aspect of the human condition. We’re literally wired to seek it when we feel there’s an injustice in the world.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that justice, anger and resentment end up clouding those ideals. We’ve seen that anger directed towards the political process that played out in 2016. We’ve seen it used to demonize and denigrate entire groups of people, including an entire gender in some cases.

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When people are attacked, their first instinct isn’t to admit defeat. It’s to fight back. That’s just basic survival instinct and there’s no way any movement, be it political or social, can circumvent that. By fighting back, the backlash itself gains momentum. Sometimes that backlash gains enough momentum to become a movement in it’s own right. Then, it too may be subject to a backlash.

It seems like an never-ending cycle, one in which little is gained in the long run. While I don’t deny it can be disheartening, I believe there are gains that make many movements worthwhile in the long run. Just ask any same-sex couple who can get married now if they’re willing to risk such a backlash. They would probably do so in a heartbeat.

I don’t know how the movement against sexual misconduct is going to play out, even if the backlash it inspires ends up being minor. I hope, in the long run, it has a net-positive effect on society. It still won’t be a perfect society, but whether it’s from the movement or the backlash, even a little gain in justice and human progress can still mean a lot in the long run.


Filed under Current Events, gender issues, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

Why Wolverine Of The X-men Is The Perfect Counter To Toxic Masculinity

During a debate, the biggest challenge is making a point that strikes the right chords, evokes the right emotions, and has some semblance of logic. Anyone who has ever engaged in a meaningful debate, be it a formal contest or an argument on a message board, understands the extent of that challenge.

Sometimes, you have to get creative to make those points. Thankfully, getting creative for an aspiring erotica/romance writer and die-hard comic book fan is easier than it is for most people. Every now and then, your mind makes unexpected connections that perfectly encompasses the message you’ve been trying to convey.

This brings me back to “toxic masculinity,” a term I still believe should be retired from the English language, and every other language for that matter. I’ve dedicated multiple posts to deconstructing this concept. Now, I want to take it a step further.

I want to re-frame my stance on this concept by offering a different kind of argument. I’ve already argued that context and social situations are the primary driving force of the traits often ascribed to toxic masculinity.

I still think the point I made about context and social situation is difficult to grasp, even with the references to the rat park experiments. Most people outside of psychology buffs aren’t familiar with those experiments. Instead, I want to make my point by referencing a character that the vast majority of people have heard of to some extent.

Some know him as Logan, James Howlett, Weapon X, or that snarling guy with the claws who helped make Hugh Jackman famous. Most simply know him as Wolverine.

Yes, I’m going to bring Wolverine, one of the most famous male superheroes of all time, into a discussion about toxic masculinity, but not in the way you think. Being an ardent X-men fan who has used superheroes to make points in the past, I feel uniquely qualified to link this iconic character to this concept that so many resent.

On the surface, that sounds like a losing battle. Bear with me, though. When you take a step back and look at Wolverine in the context of masculinity, as a whole, you’ll find that he’s the perfect embodiment of a man who guts the idea of toxic masculinity with his claws and spits on its corpse.

That may seem counter-initiative because anyone who is even somewhat familiar with Wolverine might see him as a man who embodies all the negative traits associated with masculinity. He’s brutish, crude, ill-mannered, ill-tempered, impulsive, violent, and irresponsible. He has all those traits on top of a tendency to go after married women.

However, before anyone starts attributing those traits to toxic masculinity, it’s important to understand the complexities of Wolverine’s story. There’s a reason why he’s often ranked as one of the most compelling characters in the history of comics. His life, persona, and story are full of all sorts of twists and turns. More than anything else, though, Wolverine’s story is one built on dehumanization.

Whether it’s the comics, movies, are cartoons, this is the primary driving force of Wolverine’s story. From his earliest origins to his most defining moments, Wolverine is a man who has been subjected to extreme forms of dehumanization. Some of them, especially those involved in the Weapon X program that made him, have no real-world parallel outside the mind of a North Korean mad scientist.

He’s had his memories erased, his mind warped, his body tortured, and even his soul stolen by a demon. Even by comic book standards, Wolverine has been roughed up more than most. Many people of exceedingly villainous tendencies have tried to strip him of his humanity and turn him into a living, breathing weapon. Needless to say, most of those people died horribly.

As a result, Wolverine is one of the most violent and unpredictable characters in all of comics. He’s also one of the most dangerous, having killed every major hero in the Marvel universe at one point and survived death itself on more than one occasion.

The most remarkable feat though, which also happens to strike directly at the very foundation of toxic masculinity, is his continued desire to cling to his humanity and be the iconic hero that so many X-men fans love.

It’s that drive, and the endearing persona that emerges from it, that makes Wolverine the perfect counter-punch to toxic masculinity. Despite all these dehumanizing forces, he still clings to his humanity. That effort, which has played out in many comics, movies, and cartoons over the years, reflects one important concept.

In essence, Wolverine reflects the idea that it’s really hard to make a man behave in such a toxic way. In order for him to be the kind of man that most people attribute to toxic masculinity, it’s necessary to torture him endlessly, strip him of all identity, and undercut his humanity in the worst way possible. If that kind of force is required, then how can anyone claim that masculinity is inherently toxic?

If those sorts of traits were inherent in men, then someone like Wolverine wouldn’t need that kind of conditioning. He wouldn’t need to be tortured or coerced into being the brutish, blood-thirsty monster that Weapon X wants him to be. If toxic masculinity were valid, someone would just have to give him some metal claws, send him out into the world, and let the magic of testosterone do the rest.

That’s not how men work, though, even in the fictional world. In X-men comics, as well as real life, ideas of masculinity guide men in different ways. For Wolverine, those ways led him to becoming an X-men, an Avenger, and an iconic hero who helped make Hugh Jackman famous. It shows in more than just his heroism.

Throughout his history in the X-men comics, Wolverine has shown that when he’s not being coerced or tortured, he makes an effort to live an honorable life. He seeks love, having even married a couple of a times. He seeks friendships and relationships, some of which have helped make characters like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee famous in their own right. He basically tries to be his own man.

Even though he’s still an asshole at times, he’s an asshole in a way that’s gender neutral. The things Wolverine does that make him an ass are the same things that apply to women. Whether it’s going after someone else’s spouse, undercutting someone’s authority, or randomly running off to do his own thing, there’s nothing Wolverine does that a woman couldn’t also do.

That leads directly to what might be an even more compelling argument for Wolverine being the antithesis of toxic masculinity. That’s because there is a female character who shares many of Wolverine’s experiences and exemplifies the same traits. Those who saw the “Logan” movie last year already know where I’m going with this.

It’s his clone/daughter, Laura “X-23” Kinney. In a sense, she doubles down on the idea that these “toxic” traits are not inherently masculine because she endured dehumanization to a similar extent. In fact, her dehumanization was even worse because she wasn’t given a name, only a number.

Like Wolverine, being subjected to such dehumanization rendered Laura violent, impulsive, and callous. If she were male, then it would be easy for advocates of toxic masculinity to slap her with that label, just like Wolverine. However, her being female undercuts that argument from its very foundation.

Together, the character and story surrounding Wolverine and X-23 undercuts toxic masculinity by establishing that the toxic effects of dehumanization don’t apply to just one gender. Strip away someone’s identity, social support, and humanity and they’ll demonstrate more than a few toxic traits.

What this means in terms of the bigger picture is that those traits attributed to toxic masculinity have a larger context that goes beyond gender. These traits that are tied to certain male behaviors are correlated to one thing, but not necessarily tied to the actual cause. Being a man doesn’t make Wolverine who he is. Being a man who was subject to dehumanizing treatment did that.

Now, apply that to a world where the very idea of masculinity is being subject to all sorts of scrutiny. Joss Whedon went so far as to call certain masculine tendencies a disease when making excuses for his infidelity. By linking everything bad in the world to masculinity, it dehumanizes men by making them seem inherently flawed.

That’s the most insidious implication of toxic masculinity. It’s very much akin to the forces behind Weapon X in that it attempts to deconstruct a core part of someone’s identity, reducing them to a hunk of flesh to be molded for someone else.

Most men don’t want that. Most people, in general, don’t want that. It’s yet another reason why the idea of toxic masculinity needs to be gutted with adamantium claws, locked in an adamantium case, and thrown into the deepest, darkest pits of the real and fictional world.


Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

When “Progress” Isn’t Really Progress


After I graduated college, I got my first full-time job at a software company providing technical support. Out of respect for my former employer, I won’t name the company or the type of software it made. I’ll just say that, like all software, it sometimes malfunctioned and users got really upset.

For the most part, those seeking support were polite and reasonable. I enjoyed helping them. It made the job feel rewarding, despite the erratic hours and mediocre pay. However, there were certain customers who, for whatever reason, just weren’t satisfied complaining about the product. They basically went out of their way vent all their problems on whoever was unlucky enough to get their call.

At my office, we called these people “rubber wall users” because they weren’t just an impenetrable wall of whining. Any time you tried to throw something at them to fix their issue, it just bounced right back at you. While we tried to be professional, there was an unwritten rule that even my supervisor understood. You say whatever you have to say to get that person off the phone and on with their miserable lives.

I’m sharing that story because it’s a fitting metaphor for a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more of these days. I see it in movies, TV shows, video games, and even novels, which especially concerns me. It involves pressuring artists, producers, and developers to be more inclusive and diverse with their media. Then, when it finally happens, that’s labeled “progress.”

With respect to the sincerity of those efforts, as well as the memories of some of the angry customers I dealt with, I disagree.

I’ve talked about progress on this blog before, mostly within the context of just how much the human race has made over the past century. You won’t find many people who celebrate that progress as much as I do. By nearly every measure, we’re far more prosperous, tolerant, and well-behaved than we’ve ever been.

That said, there are certain kinds of progress that shouldn’t count as progress. They’re only progress in the same way that getting an unruly customer off the phone with some moniker of professionalism counted as progress at my old job. It’s not motivated by a sincere acceptance of diverse opinions. It’s just a way to stop the whining.

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For the past couple years, I’ve found myself wondering just how much of this false progress is being mislabeled. I’ve been seeing it in multiple mediums. Comic books, a medium for which I regularly express my love on this blog, is just one of them.

While I’ve avoided talking about such controversies, I have noticed the same trend that others have vocally criticized in other mediums. Major publishers, including Marvel, have been pushing for more diversity in their books, but their efforts haven’t always been well-received and the resulting “progress” isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.

Beyond the diversity push, Marvel even made an effort to de-sexualize their characters. While that’s only possible to some extent for overtly sexual characters like Emma Frost or DC’s Starfire, some of those efforts have had a noticeable effect on characters like Carol Danvers and Black Cat. It’s now much rarer to see female characters flaunt their sexuality.

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For some, that counts as progress. Specifically, for those who believe depictions of sexy female characters promotes misogyny and sexism, it counts as a victory. If it upsets the fans and robs an inherently visual medium of a unique form of beauty, then so be it. That’s the price of “progress.” If I could say that with more sarcasm, I would.

Again, I disagree. In fact, I would go so far as to say those efforts by Marvel backfired and not just because it cost their editor-in-chief his job. Marvel, like all media companies, is a business. Businesses need to please their customers. When certain customers are especially vocal, they have to listen to some extent, just as I had to listen to those customers.

It’s debatable how much those at Marvel actually bought into the “progress” that certain critics were asking for. I don’t doubt that some creators were sincere in their desire to improve diversity and expand the appeal of their comics. However, I also don’t doubt that a part of that effort was just to temper some of the whining by people who know how to be extra loud in the era of social media.

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While the impact on Marvel comics concerns me greatly, I noticed a much bigger effort late last year from an industry that has been prone to much louder criticisms. Specifically, it happened in one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, “Mass Effect.” Unlike what happened with Marvel, I’m not sure this beloved series will survive.

Prior to 2014, “Mass Effect” was the cream of the crop of video game franchises. It had a little of everything. There was action, drama, romance, exploration, insight, and yes, even a little sexiness. Characters like Miranda Lawson, Liara T’soni, Samara, EDI, and even the female protagonist, Shepard, had undeniable sex appeal.

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Then, in between the release of “Mass Effect 3” and the 2017 sequel, “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” a scandal broke out in the video game industry that involved everything from sexism to harassment to just how visible a character’s butt could be in a video game. I wish I were exaggerating, but it really happened and I don’t think the industry has fully recovered.

In the midst of that scandal, the demand for “progress” soared more than it did for most other mediums. Suddenly, the act of making a video game character too sexy was seen as contributing to a toxic culture of misogyny, sexism, and violence against women and minorities. It’s not like sex appeal had nothing to do with Lara Croft becoming so successful. Again, if I could say those words with more sarcasm, I would.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda” was developed in the eye of that storm. EA and Bioware couldn’t use the same approach they did with previous “Mass Effect” games. They had to be very careful with how they designed their characters, especially their female characters. One misplaced curve is all it would take to reignite a controversy that nobody wanted to deal with, given all the negative press the gaming industry had incurred.

As a result, the female characters in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” didn’t just dial down the sex appeal. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to make their female characters less attractive. This is best shown in the female model used for Sara Ryder, the main female protagonist. To say it didn’t translate to the game would be like saying drinking a gallon of bleach might make you a little queasy.

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Ryder wasn’t the only female character to have her looks tempered. Pretty much every female character, from the supporting cast to background characters, was designed with minimal sex appeal in mind. That’s not to say the game didn’t have some sexier moments, but compared to what other games attempted before that, it was pretty watered down.

That was just one of many problems that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” faced when it launched in March 2017. Now, games launching with bugs and glitches is nothing new. It’s standard practice for a game to get patched after launch. However, the extent of those bugs in “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” combined with unattractive characters, did not help the game’s reception.

I say that as someone who played the game and still loved it, for the most part. Since I love “Mass Effect” games so much, I found plenty of reasons to love “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” However, I found myself having to overlook more flaws than usual. I also found it hard to really admire the visual aspects of the game. Like comics, undermining that part of the experience can be pretty detrimental.

There were a lot of criticism levied against “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” Some are legitimate. Some are painfully valid. More than any other game, though, it was developed with the intent to promote a more diverse and inclusive product that appealed everyone and offended no one. As the sales and reception seem to indicate, though, even female gamers don’t like looking at unattractive characters.

As a result, nobody really hailed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” as progress. However, nobody staged a mass online protest claiming the game made its female characters too sexy and promoted toxic behaviors among its users. Some might count that as progress too. I am not one of them.

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In a sense, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” is a case study in a product where efforts towards progress just masked a desire to avoid outrage. Just avoiding outrage does not count as progress in any capacity. It just counts as a company trying to shield itself from bad publicity that might damaged its brand. Say what you will about corporate greed, but brand still matters to them, often more than money.

I don’t blame Bioware or EA at all for going that route, but simply avoiding outrage set the bar pretty low and it might have doomed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” before it ever had a chance. At the moment, the “Mass Effect” franchise is on indefinite hold because the response to “Mass Effect: Andromeda” was not what the developer had hoped.

Beyond the tragedy of damaging a beloved franchise, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” reflects a dangerous and potentially regressive sentiment in the industry. Rather than focus on pushing the envelope and doing something bold, artists and developers are more concerned with avoiding outrage. The actual quality of the final product can only ever be secondary, at most.

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There are a great many challenges facing the video game industry, as anyone who followed the news surrounding “Star Wars: Battlefront II” can attest. However, the precedent set by “Mass Effect: Andromeda” may very well be the most damaging.

Most agree that video games, like any other media, should work to appeal to a broad audience. However, as Marvel found out, forcing certain kinds of “progress” can have some pretty detrimental effects in the long run. It alienates consumers, frustrates developers, and limits the incentives to innovate and try new things.

At the end of the day, making female superheroes less sexy in comics and making characters in “Mass Effect” less attractive did nothing to reduce sexism, promote gender equality, or foster a more inclusive culture. All it really did was go out of its way to stop exceedingly vocal critics from whining.

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Bioware and EA didn’t suddenly become more enlightened about video games, female characters, and the impact of mass media. They simply took the path of least resistance, doing what would generate the least amount of outrage, at least in terms of sexist accusations. That’s not progress. That’s just frustration and, like my old job, very little good comes from it.


Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sexuality, video games

No, Porn Is NOT A Public Health Crisis (But Our Attitudes About It Are)


In his book, “Sex and God,” which I highly recommend, author Darrel Ray tells a brief, but revealing story about the topic of porn addition. It goes something like this:

One day, an anxious and distressed man walks into a therapist’s office. He tells the therapist he’s addicted to porn. He spends no less than six hours a day watching, masturbating at least three times in the process. Needless to say, this habit has completely disrupted his life.

He struggles to hold down a job. He struggles to maintain a relationship. His porn consumption is so all-encompassing that it is a serious detriment to his day-to-day living. He desperately seeks help and the therapist listens intently, hoping to help this man overcome this issue and forge a healthier life.

The next day, another anxious and distressed man walks into the same therapist’s office. He also tells the therapist he’s addicted to porn. However, when the therapist asks how much porn he consumes, the man says he watches only a few hours every week. He does masturbates, but not every day and never more than twice.

He holds down a steady job. He has a wife and kids that he loves dearly. He also comes from a deeply religious community where he’s widely respected. He’s terrified that someone will find out that he watches porn or masturbates. The guilt he feels is so serious and he desperately seeks help.

The therapist still listens intently, but has to find a way to explain to the man that the porn itself is not the problem. It’s the undue guilt he feels that’s causing all these issues.

It’s a basic story, but one that reflects the strange, eccentric nature of our attitudes towards porn. It exists. It’s legal. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, complete with some of the most heavily trafficked websites on the internet. There have been efforts to ban it in the past, but those efforts rarely succeed. Even in non-democratic countries, porn finds a way to feed the human libido.

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Despite this, there are still efforts by regressive people on both sides of the political spectrum who see porn the same way others see crystal meth. It’s not just an addictive drug. It’s one that has seriously detrimental side effects on those who use it and society as a whole. It’s one of those strange sentiments that both radical feminists and right-wing conservatives share for different reasons.

I don’t want to focus too much on the reasons for those sentiments, nor do I want to break down all the reasons why I believe they’re misguided. That’s not the reason I’m writing this article. In general, I try avoid talking about these sorts of moral crusades because, like other notable crusades, they tend to be more spectacle than substance.

That said, I have noticed the anti-porn crowd shifting their tactics in their quest to temper human desire. Rather than push for outright censorship, which is rarely popular in democratic societies, this crowd is attempting to label porn a public health crisis.

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The government of Utah, the current title holder for most porn subscriptions by state, was the first to declare porn a public health crisis back in 2016. Other states have followed, but the most notable is Florida, who managed to declare it a public health crisis after denying a ban on assault rifles.

Let that sink in for a moment. Florida says that porn is a crisis that warrants greater scrutiny than assault weapons, which actually kill people. If that doesn’t show just how flawed our attitudes are about porn and guns, then I don’t know what does.

Bear in mind that just declaring porn a health crisis has limited effect beyond bad PR for the business. A government cannot censor porn any more than they can shut down another multi-billion dollar industry with massive global reach. As CNN reported, it’s more a symbolic gesture, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s one huge act of virtue signaling. It’s as empty and worthless as any declaration can possibly be.

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While this crowd will eagerly cite studies that claim porn leads to all sorts of negative behaviors that destroy families and relationships, they’re just as eager to ignore the many flaws in those studies. They’ll also ignore data that suggests an increase in porn consumption actually decreases instances of sex crimes.

As I’ve noted before, human beings are complex, multi-layered creatures. Porn is just one of those few things that impacts a wider range of those complexities than most. It strikes at our moral values, our understanding of intimacy, our insights into sex, and our concept of love.

For some people, it has no effect. For some, it has a positive effect. For others, it has a negative effect. You could say the same thing for everything from fast food to video games to stamp collecting. When it comes to the effect, it depends on the attitude of the individual and how they’re wired.

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The republican party in America has made no secret of their attitudes towards porn. That attitude is not unlike the one of the second man who walked into the therapists office that I described earlier. It’s not the porn that made him feel so damaged. It was his attitude and overbearing guilt, which is often religiously motivated.

It’s for this reason that organizations like the American Psychological Association don’t put porn addiction in the same category they do with substance abuse. They’ve noted that the vast majority of porn consumers rarely suffer ill-effects. For some, it even provides significant benefits.

There is, however, a small subset of the population that struggles with it. By small, I mean less than 10 percent. These people are, in their own minds, hopelessly addicted to porn. However, when compared to the prevalence of alcoholism or prescription drugs, porn is hardly a fair comparison. That’s not to take away from the suffering of those people, but there is a context to it.

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Porn is not like a chemical you inject into your brain to directly evoke a particular effect. It’s not sort of mental conditioning, either. For those addicted to it, as with other addictions, there are other factors involved. It’s not the porn itself as much as it is the mentality behind it.

Maybe someone is using it because they’re just a lot hornier than the average person. Maybe it’s because they’re not getting enough sex from their current personal life. Maybe it’s because there’s a particular aspect of their sexuality that they cannot otherwise explore. Whatever their reason, the damage only gets worse when they’re racked with guilt about it.

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Everyone’s experience with porn, sex, and everything in between is different. Actor Terry Crews claimed he battled porn addiction, but absent any larger context, it’s hard to know whether porn was actually the problem or whether it was an effect of something else.

That’s the ultimate irony of calling porn a public health crisis. It attempts to label an effect as a cause, which isn’t just asinine. It’s utterly backwards and detracts from other, more substantive issues. By calling porn a crisis, it creates the sentiment that there’s this one, simple target that’s the source of all these complex troubles.

I can already spoil the outcome of that effort right now. Even if porn disappeared tomorrow, those troubles would remain. Those attitudes would continue hurting those who were addicted. It won’t solve any problems. It’ll just redirect those issues, waste time, needlessly spend taxpayer money, and further undermine our ability to be comfortable with our sexuality.

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