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Al Bundy, Circumcision, And Double Standards In Humor

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When you want to know how taboo a topic is, it helps to look at how sensitive people are to jokes about it. Most people can comfortably joke about teenagers, old people, the President, the French, and the Pope. Some of those jokes even make it into popular cartoons and sitcoms that we still laugh at to this day.

Then, there are topics for which making jokes is a gamble. Make the wrong remark at the wrong time and it could really cost you. Just ask Gilbert Gottfried or Roseanne Barr. The stakes get even higher when you joke about religion. Some have a better sense of humor than others, but those that don’t tend to make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Since humor and religion rarely mix, I want to focus on a topic that’s slightly less sensitive in circumcision. I say slightly because gender-specific humor is a lot trickier these days. Old jokes about women drivers and gay men just don’t work anymore and not because more cars are driving themselves.

Between trends in feminism and outrage over Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, the current state of gender politics is no laughing matter. I’ve talked about gender conflicts on many occasions and I’ve also discussed serious issues surrounding circumcision. I’m also aware that the current issues surrounding circumcision aren’t on many peoples’ radar, but I still think it’s worth talking about.

This isn’t just about representation in media or offensive stereotypes. This is about purposefully mutilating parts of the human body. When it happens to women, it’s a major problem that warrants major resources to combat. When it happens to men, though, it’s no big deal and prone to plenty of humor.

It’s more than just a double standard. It reveals a lot about our overall attitudes when we’re willing to joke about something. It shows how much the issue matters and how much energy we’re willing to put in to confront it. To understand the state of circumcision for men, you need look no further than an old episode of “Married With Children.”

I’ve mentioned this classic Fox sitcom before. I put it at the top of my list of TV shows that could never be made today. The fat jokes alone would get it cancelled. It’s a show that went out of its way to be controversial, much to the chagrin of a Michigan house wife. That included an episode about circumcision.

This particular episode was called “A Little Off The Top” and if you know anything about male circumcision, you understand why that’s an overly appropriate title. It starts with Al Bundy getting injured in a basketball game, going to a hospital, and getting circumcised due to a medical error.

It’s all portrayed with typical “Married With Children” hilarity. In fact, one of the most memorable moments of the episode is when Peggy gets a call from the hospital and Marcy, the Bundy family’s neighbor and one of Al’s many enemies, laughs hysterically. I’m not going to lie. When I saw a recent rerun of the episode, I laughed too.

That’s the genius of “Married With Children.” It can take depressing situations like a loveless marriage, a lousy job, and idiot kids and make it funny. It’s part of why this show is one of my favorite shows of all time. When you strip away the humor in this episode, though, there are some disturbing overtones.

To illustrate, here’s a quick thought experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that this isn’t happening in a TV show and you just randomly stumbled across a news article.

“Local Chicago man rushed to a hospital after injury playing basketball is mistakenly circumcised. Family and neighbors make fun of him.”

Take away the iconic Bundy family and the context of a sitcom. Just look at it in terms of raw facts. A man gets an injury, goes to the hospital, has his genitals mutilated against his will due to an error, and is laughed at because of it. The fact that it happens to Al Bundy makes it funny. If it happened to anyone in the real world, it’s not likely to be as funny.

Medical errors are already horrifying enough. This one is extra disturbing for men because it involves our genitals. There’s already a growing reservation about circumcising baby boys for no medical reason who cannot consent, which did not exist when “Married With Children” was on the air. On top of that, there’s a distinct double standard in play.

Even in the lewd world of a 90s Fox sitcom, there are lines that even the Bundy family cannot cross. If you were to reverse the genders in this episode, as I’ve put forth as part of previous thought experiments, then the humor just doesn’t work. If the episode involved a woman who’d been circumcised against her will by accident, then it wouldn’t be funny. It would be disturbing.

The reasons for that aren’t entirely simple. There is a medical and logistical difference between male and female circumcision. For the most part, female circumcision in its various forms are prone to more complications, even in a medical setting. Male and female anatomy are different. There’s no getting around that.

However, the logistics are the same. They both involve cutting, altering, or outright mutilating someone’s genitals against their will. Despite these similarities, one is still capable of being funny while the other is not.

That idea matters because when something can be funny, it impacts how seriously we take it as a society. We can joke about ditzy blonde women, bone-headed men, and irresponsible teenagers because they’re not seen as dire issues. That’s also the reason why we can make jokes about the Vatican in 2018 that probably would’ve gotten people killed half-a-century ago.

The fact that male circumcision can be a joke or the premise of a sitcom says that it’s not serious enough to be on the same level as female genital mutilation. They may not be the same thing, but the implications are still there. When a woman is mutilated, it’s a travesty. When a man is mutilated, it’s comedy. That is not a trivial gap.

I doubt “Married With Children” was trying to make a statement about male circumcision when the episode first aired. The show made a lot of controversial jokes and circumcision barely cracks the top ten. Even if that episode aired today, it probably wouldn’t be that controversial, which says a lot about how little our attitudes about male circumcision have changed since the mid-90s.

In that same time, though, efforts to combat female genital mutilation have gained ground. Efforts to beautify and protect the female body are part of a larger social trend. However, those efforts are not equally prescribed to men, even when the concept is the same.

Now, I’m in no ways in favor of making jokes about male circumcision taboo. Historically speaking, making anything taboo only tends to make an issue worse. I’m also not advocating that we start joking about female genital mutilation, either. My point in citing a memorable episode from a raunchy 90s sitcom is to show the vast disparity in the circumcision debate.

When something is a joke for one group of people, but an atrocity for another, then there’s a major disconnect in the issue. Both sides can and should be discussed seriously. Both can and should be held to similar standards are humor, as well. When you start making exceptions for one over the other, then that obscures the debate for both.

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Filed under circumcision, gender issues, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

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The internet is a vast, wonderful place full of mesmerizing gifs, amazing stories, and the collective knowledge of our entire species. I would argue that the internet is one of humanity’s most important tools since the invention of fire. I strongly believe that is has done more good any other tool we’ve created.

I have a feeling that this rosy view of the internet is a minority opinion. These days, all the good the internet does tends to get lost in the stories that highlight its many dangers. I don’t deny that there are dangers there. The internet does have some dark places where hate, harassment, and outright depravity are on full display.

More and more, it seems, the internet is becoming an enabler of a new manifestation of popular culture. It’s called “toxic fandom” and it relies on the greatest strengths of the internet to bring out the absolute worst in people. It didn’t start with the heated fan reaction of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but it certainly made it relevant.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. There are assholes on the internet. There are also assholes in real life. The internet doesn’t make them that way. It just gives them a platform to be an asshole on a larger scale. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of the internet, but one that tends to obscure a larger narrative.

That’s because, much like inane terms such as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of toxic fandom relies on a series of assumptions that only ever have a sliver of truth behind them. It builds around this idea of there’s this grand, over-arching effort by immature, angry young men who secretly wish they could sexually harass women with impunity. It’s not quite on the level of an Alex Jones type conspiracy, but it’s close.

There have always been overly-passionate fans. It existed long before the internet and would still exist if the internet disappeared tomorrow. “Toxic fandom,” and there’s a reason I’m putting it in quotes, is something very different.

This doesn’t involve obsession with a particular celebrity. It involves a particular type of media like a movie, a TV show, or a video game. In some respects, this sort of fandom is a byproduct of overwhelming success. When something like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” comes along, it resonates with an audience on a profound level. That sort of impact can last a lifetime.

I can attest to the power of that impact through my love of comic books. I’ve even cited a few that I find deeply moving, both in good ways and in not-so-good ways. Most everybody has had an experience like that at some point in their life, whether it’s their reaction to seeing “Titanic” for the first time or the feeling they get after they binge-watch “Breaking Bad.”

The toxic part usually comes when the media they’ve come to love manifests in a way that’s not just disappointing. It undermines those powerful feelings they’ve come to associate with that media. The results can be very distressing and until recently, the only way to express that distress was to sulk quietly in a darkened room.

Then, the internet comes along and suddenly, fans have a way to voice their feelings, for better and for worse. They can even connect with fans who feel like they do so that they don’t feel alone. The human tendency to form groups is one of the most fundamental acts anyone can do as a member of a highly social species.

Now, there’s nothing inherently “toxic” about that behavior. It has only made the news because the passions/vitriol of fans is more visible, thanks to the internet. Just browse any comments section of any movie or show on IMDB. Chances are you’ll find a few people who claim that this thing they once loved has been ruined and will use every possible medium to voice their displeasure.

This is where the “toxic” aspects of fandom start to have real-world consequences. Most recently, Kelly Marie Tran became the face of those victimized by toxic fandoms. After her portrayal of Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she became the most polarizing figure in the history of Star Wars since Jar Jar Binks.

The story surrounding Ms. Tran’s harassment, which was objectively horrible, became vindication for those who believed that the Star Wars fanbase had become a mess of angry, hate-filled fanboys. They didn’t like that something they loved was changing and becoming more diverse. As such, their criticisms don’t matter. They may as well be wounded storm troopers in a room full of angry wookies.

The problem with this assumption is the same problem we get when someone writes off facts as fake news or diversity efforts as a neo-Marxist conspiracy. It’s a simple, convenient excuse to ignore possible flaws and justify personal assumptions. It also conflates the inescapable truth that assholes exist in the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.

None of this is to imply that harassment is justified or that fans can be exceedingly unreasonable. By the same token, this doesn’t imply that studios don’t deserve criticism when they attempt to revamp a beloved franchise in a way that does not keep with the spirit of the original. It’s only when criticism gets lost in the outrage that the “toxic” behaviors become more prominent.

It’s within that outrage, though, where the true flaws in the “toxic fanbase” narrative really break down. To a large extent, the “toxicity” that many complain about aren’t a product of unhealthy attitudes. They’re a manifestation of an inherent flaw in the relationship between fans and those who produce the iconic media they love.

To illustrate that flaw, think back to a recent controversy involving a “toxic fanbase.” Before the reaction “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” became the poster child for this issue, the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake was the most prominent example. It earned a lot of hatred for reasons that I’d rather not scrutinize.

With that hatred in mind, imagine a long-time Ghostbusters fan seeking to express their dismay. They decide to write a kind, detailed, and thoughtful letter to the studio, the director, and anyone else involved detailing their dismay and their criticisms. They may even cite specific examples on what they felt was wrong with the movie.

Chances are this sort of thoughtful, well-worded message would get deleted, ignored, or just plain lost in the digital landscape. Even if the head of Sony studios read it and agreed with every point made, they wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t do anything ot change it. That would just be too inconvenient and it would look bad publicly.

From the perspective of the fan writing the letter, though, it sends the message that their sentiment doesn’t matter. Their passion for the media doesn’t matter. They might as well not even exist in the eyes of the producers. The only way for them to even acknowledge their existance is to be louder, angrier, and even a little meaner. Even if the reponse is negative, it at least acknowledges their existence.

It’s not the same as trolling. Trolls just want upset people for the fun of it. Fans voicing their displeasure are more sincere in the sense that they believe they’re protecting something they love. Whether or not that’s misguided is debatable. Some, namely those who harass and make threats, are more misguided than others. However, they only ever make up a very small percentage of fans.

In the end, that’s the most important perspective to have when it comes to fandom. Those who are the loudest tend to be the most obnoxious, but they’re loud because they feel like they have to be. The internet just gives them a way to be heard, which is something most fans haven’t had before.

That’s still not an excuse for being an asshole, but it’s also not an excuse for using those same assholes to call an entire fanbase toxic. It overlooks and undermines the genuine and sincere love people have of these cultural icons. As as a result, when someone feels like their love is being ignored, that’s when toxic hate often finds a way to fill that void.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, human nature, media issues, movies, political correctness, Star Wars

Biotechnology And The Future Of Gender

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With each passing year, it seems gender-driven conflicts are becoming more and more heated and less and less rational. Every time I bring them up, which is distressingly often, I feel like I have to walk through a minefield while juggling chainsaws. I know it doesn’t take much to start a controversy these days and I’d rather not add fuel to that fire.

The current state of gender conflict is pretty intense. I expect it to get worse before it gets better, but I don’t want to dwell on that too much for the moment. Instead, I’d like to do what I often do when I discuss emerging technology and contemplate the future. Moreover, I want to focus on the potential for a better future between the genders.

Yes, I realize the situation is pretty hectic now. I also don’t deny that trends in feminism and the associated backlash make it difficult to be optimistic. I’m still going to try because I believe we’re getting close to a point where the barriers that hinder a truly egalitarian society will eventually fall. It’s just a matter of developing the right tools.

Chief among those tools are those emerging in the field of biotechnology. It’s a subject I’ve highlighted before, primarily in terms of its potential to treat disease and provide better contraception. Those kinds of advances are just stepping stones, though. The true potential of biotechnology goes much further.

With respect to gender, I think most won’t deny that there’s room for improvement in terms of the current dynamic. Whether you’re a man, woman, or something in between, most people don’t have to think too hard to surmise imperfections in the current system. I’ve mentioned a few, but they’re worth scrutinizing.

If you’re a woman, those imperfections take a fairly direct toll and not just in terms of being the gender that bears children. Beyond the burdens that facet of womanhood has incurred historical, there are still some fairly substantial gaps between women and men today. Regardless of whether or not you’re a feminist, the data is pretty clear. Women are not on a level playing field with men.

If you’re a man, that’s just as true. Men may not bear children, but they also bear plenty of burdens. They are expected to fight in bloody wars, making up 97 percent of all war deaths. They work harder, more dangerous jobs that disproportionately kill them. They’re also expected to be okay with having their genitals mutilated as babies. By those metrics, men are not on a level playing field, either.

Things get even more unequal when you put transgender issues into the mix and I’m not just talking about which bathrooms they have to use. Transgender individuals face a unique brand of issues, ranging from housing discrimination to healthcare access. Regardless of how you feel about transgender issues, and some question whether it’s even real, these people are struggling under the current dynamic.

It’s a dynamic that, for most of human history, has been heavily influenced by the limits of biology. Like it or not, we’re very much at the mercy of what evolution has wrought. Even if you’re among the crowd who thinks gender is entirely socially constructed, it’s impossible to get around hard biology, at least for now.

The hard data is fairly clear. Human beings are sexually dimorphic, which means there are intrinsic physical differences between men and women. Since one gender bears children while the other doesn’t, that kind of has to be the case. Considering how well our species has thrived over the past several thousand years, you could make the case that these dynamics have worked fairly well.

However, there’s still room for improvement. In the tradition of the Doug Stanhope principle, it’s worth asking a simple question about our current gender situation. If the current dynamic didn’t exist, would you invent it that way? If you were working from scratch, would you create a species in which half the population had to bear children for nine months while the other half had part of their genitals hanging outside their bodies?

I’m not saying the human body, in its current form, isn’t a beautiful work of nature, but there’s no denying its flaws. As long as those flaws remain in place, the amount of progress we can make towards a truly egalitarian society will be limited. With the emergence of biotechnology, though, there may come a time when we may not be subject to those constraints.

When you get right down to the differences in muscle mass and endurance, much of it is driven by genetics. There’s only so much we can do with hormones and supplements, as female body builders have shown, before genetics comes into play. We’re only just starting to hack some of those genes, but there’s still room for refinement.

That refinement will come as the technology matures, just as we’ve seen with refinements to in vitro fertilization and LASIK eye surgery. It won’t happen all at once, but there may come a point when we have a sufficient understanding of the human genome and how to change it at the genetic level with tools like CRISPR.

Once we have that knowledge, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t modify individual genomes to a point where men and women are completely equal in terms of strength, stamina, and overall physicality. In that situation, there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t carry out the same physically demanding tasks as men.

For the mental side, though, that may end up being trickier. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain in general, let alone the innate differences between men and women. Most current research seems to suggest there are some differences, but the extent of those differences aren’t really clear. There’s evidence that there could be even more differences in the brains of transgender individuals.

Even if those differences are biologically innate, they can still be manipulated with the right tool. Some of those tools are already in development in the form of brain implants, such as those being developed by Neuralink. Whether it’s problem solving or emotional intelligence, there’s no reason why any gender-based difference can’t be resolved with a properly-calibrated implant.

Put all these advances together and the future of gender may render our current conflicts obsolete. I believe that if it is the goal of society to create a truly egalitarian structure for men, women, and everything in between, then the necessary tools to do so will make that possible at some point. The only question is whether or not that will actually be the goal.

I can’t speak for everyone who has ever argued for a certain gender-based issue. Being a man, I don’t deny that my perspectives on gender are limited by my experiences. However, if we’re going by what has worked best from an evolutionary perspective, a species that can effectively cooperate, communicate, and share knowledge has a huge advantage.

Reducing gender disparity at a genetic and physical level has plenty of benefits on paper. Add artificial wombs to the mix, effectively removing the burden of child-rearing from half the population, and suddenly our entire species is on a level playing field. That opens the door to entirely new manifestations of gender, as we know it.

I can’t predict what form that will take. Once we start manipulating our genes and our looks, by default, then the line between what is feminine and what is masculine may blur. While I don’t think it will disappear entirely, I think there will be some adjustments. It may even lead to entirely new gender-driven conflicts in the short term.

In the long run, though, I think the future of gender will arc towards greater equality overall. There may come a time where every individual born has the same physical and mental potential, regardless of their gender. Women will be as physically strong as men. Men will be able to multi-task like women. They may still look distinct, but their abilities will be truly equal.

A society full of those individuals will require an entirely new dynamic, one built around a host of new tools that we’re just starting to develop. It could just as easily go in the opposite direction with various gender gaps widening as a result of those tools. However, I believe that the benefits of equality will win out, albeit for purely pragmatic reasons. A future with that level of equality will likely result in the greatest potential for everyone.

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Filed under futurism, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, sex in society, sexuality

Why Henry Cavill Shouldn’t Apologize For His Comments On The Anti-Harassment Movement (But Still Had To)

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What does it say about the state of a society when people have to apologize for voicing honest, legitimate concerns? Pragmatically speaking, it implies that the value of truth and just has been subsumed by other influences. Whether it’s politics or ideology, it’s not hard for society to get to a point where unreasonable forces subvert reasonable issues.

In that sense, it’s ironic that the latest person to experience those influences once played Superman, the personification of truth, justice, and the American way. Henry Cavill, whose star has risen significantly since he broke out in “Man of Steel,” got into some hot water recently after an interview with GQ.

In that interview, he essentially made the same mistake Matt Damon made when he tried to comment on the anti-harassment movement. He said something that was reasonable, honest, and understandable from a purely logistical standpoint. He’s worried that something as simile as flirting with a woman could somehow be construed as harassment, which could lead to a full-blown scandal.

For reference, these were his exact words from the interview and the ones that subsequently led him down the same path as Matt Damon.

It’s very difficult to do that if there are certain rules in place. Because then it’s like: ‘Well, I don’t want to go up and talk to her, because I’m going to be called a rapist or something’. So you’re like, ‘Forget it, I’m going to call an ex-girlfriend instead, and then just go back to a relationship, which never really worked’. But it’s way safer than casting myself into the fires of hell, because I’m someone in the public eye, and if I go and flirt with someone, then who knows what’s going to happen?

Now? Now you really can’t pursue someone further than, ‘No’. It’s like, ‘OK, cool’. But then there’s the, ‘Oh why’d you give up?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, because I didn’t want to go to jail?’

Think about what he’s saying here and take a step back to see how he got to that point. He’s talking about being called a rapist just for going up to a woman and talking to her. How is that reasonable? It’s not. It sounds paranoid, but it’s perfectly understandable in the current social climate.

It’s easy to picture a scenario where someone like Cavill walks up to a woman, starts flirting, and ends up saying something inappropriate. That’s not just something men do. Women do that too. Being vulgar knows no gender. However, if the woman in this scenario takes particular offense, it could be construed as harassment or even assault.

If a woman was especially vindictive or just prone to exaggeration, she could accuse him of assaulting her. Even if those accusations aren’t even close to warranting an actual crime, it would still be devastating. The accusation alone would be enough to derail a promising career.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of this. Aziz Ansari was not charged with any crimes for the infamous incident that came out earlier this year and even if he had been, there’s no way he would’ve been convicted. An incident built entirely around a he said/she-said situation doesn’t come close to meeting the burden of proof for a criminal conviction.

That doesn’t matter, though. Ansari’s career has already taken a major down turn. His hit show, “Masters of None,” has not been renewed by Netflix since the allegations came out. Men like Henry Cavill, whose careers are ascending, certainly take notice of that. They don’t even have to commit a crime and suddenly, everything they worked for is in ashes.

For powerful men in Hollywood, it’s a reasonable concern, but one they probably won’t get much sympathy for expressing. Men like Henry Cavill are rich, successful, and handsome enough to comfortably wear Superman’s skin-tight costume. He’s a man who can attract women just by breathing. However, that may end up making him even more vulnerable.

Most people aren’t going to be inclined to make a big deal about someone who flirts inappropriately. When that person is a celebrity, though, the incentives are much stronger. You need only have an overreaction or a burning desire for attention to twist it into something much worse.

It’s for that reason that Cavill shouldn’t have apologized for his comments. His concerns are legitimate and after all the work he’s put in, he’s right to worry about the forces that might destroy it. That still didn’t matter. His comments still triggered a major backlash on social media. He also had to apologize for it. These were his exact words.

“Having seen the reaction to an article in particular about my feelings on dating and the #metoo movement, I just wanted to apologize for any confusion and misunderstanding that this may have created. Insensitivity was absolutely not my intention. In light of this I would just like to clarify and confirm to all that I have always and will continue to hold women in the highest of regard, no matter the type of relationship whether it be friendship, professional, or a significant other. Never would I intend to disrespect in any way, shape or form. This experience has taught me a valuable lesson as to the context and the nuance of editorial liberties. I look forward to clarifying my position in the future towards a subject that it so vitally important and in which I wholeheartedly support.”

Notice that there’s nothing in that apology that expands on his concerns. Cavill doesn’t attempt to re-frame his point or address some of the complaints levied against him. He just throws his hands up and apologizes about everything, as though every word he said was factually wrong.

Now, to be fair to Cavill, it’s very likely that the statement he gave was written by a publicist or agent. Chances are he was pressured to read that as quickly as possible in order to prevent him from getting labeled a misogynist or someone who did not wholly support the anti-harassment movement. Even if he didn’t feel inclined to apologize, he still had to do it in order to preserve his career and reputation.

Regardless of his reasons for doing so, he still apologized for telling the honest truth. The backlash he received didn’t even argue that truth. Most of it amounted to scoffing at the concerns of a rich, handsome celebrity who is undeserving of any sympathy. One commenter even went so far as to call him a wannabe victim.

Such criticism is every bit as absurd as the kind Matt Damon got when he dared to point out that there’s a difference between patting a woman on the butt and full-blown rape. They also fail to acknowledge that it’s entirely possible for a woman to be vindictive enough to falsely accuse someone of a heinous crime for the sole purpose of ruining their career, despite documented cases that this has happened.

It’s one thing to expose the serious crimes of predators like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. Those cases did have evidence and are being processed through appropriate legal means. The behaviors Henry Cavill described don’t even come close to that kind of conduct.

The fact that Cavill had to apologize sets a dangerous precedent for the anti-harassment movement. History has shown that any movement that throws off honest truth and basic justice is built on a poor foundation. In time, that foundation eventually crumbles and the merits of the movement get lost.

There are plenty of behaviors among celebrities and non-celebrities that warrant outrage. What Henry Cavill said wasn’t one of them. The fact he still had to apologize for his words does not bode well for anyone concerned with the values that heroes like Superman embody.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, gender issues, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

How Atheism May Improve Your Sex Life

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When it comes to improving your sex life, there’s no one way to go about it that works for everyone. Human sexuality is complex, diverse, and exceedingly kinky. What works for one person won’t work for another and may even be detrimental in some cases.

Conversely, there are also variety of ways to undermine or ruin your sex life. That same sexual diversity that helps the human race find novel ways to get intimate with one another can also backfire horribly. Some are minor, in terms of effect, but other forces can have a much greater impact.

That brings me to religion, a topic that tends to inspire the best and worst in people. Like sex, it’s a complex phenomenon that impacts everybody differently. It can inspire great charity and compassion in some. It can just as easily incur greed, exploitation, and outright atrocity.

For those reasons, and plenty more that are too numerous to list, any effort that involves mixing sex with religion is akin to mixing napalm with TNT. I’ve made an effort to discuss both topics in a fair, balanced manner in the past. I feel as though I can only go so far before I totally inflame certain audiences.

I’m still going to try to push the conversation a bit farther. That means taking a few risks and since religion is still such a prominent force in the world, it’s effect on our collective sex lives is unavoidable.

For this particular discussion, want to focus on what happens when religion is removed from the equation. If religion is really that powerful an influence on our lives, and both history and current politics indicate that influence is not entirely trivial, then it stands to reason that the impact of its absence can reveal something about the extent of that influence.

That’s not to say that this is going to be a glowing endorsement of atheism. I prefer to let the data, the logic, and the implications speak for themselves. Since religion is on decline in many parts of the western world, I think exploring the potential impact is critical and even a little urgent.

Information on the sex lives of atheists compared to those who consider themselves religious is somewhat difficult to come by. The act of assessing and measuring someone’s sex lives, as well as the extent of their religiosity, is extremely difficult without the aid of lie detectors or mind-readers. The information we do have, though, does offer some intriguing insights.

Back in 2011, a survey entitled “Sex and Secularism” surveyed approximately 14,500 people revealed that those who identified as religious had less satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts. On top of that, those same religious participants reported a high level of guilt that came along with their sex lives. Given how some religions build their theology around guilt, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Conversely, those identifying as non-religious didn’t just report better sex lives. They had better sexual education and were more open to discussing sex in general. Everything from personal fantasies to simple tastes was fair game and less affected by guilt. That openness, along with considerably less stigma, was conducive to a more fulfilling sex life.

That effect was more pronounced by those who had once been religious, but had since become atheist. Between the absence of religiously-motivated guilt and the sexual taboos that are often theologically driven, the cumulative effect is pretty striking. This notable quote from the researchers summed it up nicely.

“People who had lost their belief and became atheists reported a significant improvement in sexual satisfaction,” the paper went on to say. Apparently the guilty feelings that religion creates around sex dissipate after a while.

Now, I can already hear the outrage sincerely devout religious crowd on the conclusions of this study. More than a few people who consider themselves religious will claim that their sex lives are superior and they may even have a case to make. Many religions offer a simple, one-size-fits-all approach to sex that is uncomplicated, straightforward, and safer. The fact that it’s also ordained by a divine power is also a factor.

I don’t deny that there are plenty of religious couples out there who have satisfying sex lives. There are probably plenty of atheists out there who have terrible sex lives, as well. However, in order to draw larger conclusions about the impact of religion on sex, we can’t just go by a few anecdotal experiences. We have to step back and see the forest from the trees.

From a psychological and physiological perspective, it makes sense that guilt, religiously-motivated or not, would undermine anyone’s sex life. Guilt has measurable effects on people. It makes it harder to focus. It keeps us from enjoying things. It’s a powerful distraction that makes us feel stress and anxiety. All of these forces can do plenty to undermine your sex life.

In my musings on taboos, I often cite religion as a driving force behind them. Organized religion has made no secret of its intent to regulate, control, or outright exploit human sexuality. There’s plenty of theology, especially among the Abrahamic religions, that imparts divinely-mandated guilt on sex.

In these religious cultures, sex isn’t just some basic biological act that people do for intimacy, procreation, and recreation. It’s subject to all sorts of holy and unholy connotations. The deities involved in these religions aren’t just interested in the kind of sex you’re having. They’ll actually punish you if you do it the wrong way.

That does more than just impart extra guilt for doing anything that strays from what priests, mullahs, monks, and rabbis deem appropriate. It also instills a very rigid family structure, one centered around a specific manifestation of sex that has very little room for fun, kink, and exploration.

That manifestation involves strict gender roles where men do the hard labor and women do the child rearing. The only sex that is sanctioned is the one that involves producing babies who subsequently grow up to be adherents/soldiers/patrons of a particular religion. The fact that type of sexual expression indirectly benefits religious institutions is probably just a coincidence.

The act of enjoying sex for non-procreative purposes would constitute a distraction. A distraction is dangerous in any religion because if people become too distracted, then they pay less attention to the religious institutions and the duties they espouse. As such, it’s in the interest of any successful religion to maintain a strict control over someone’s sex life.

That kind of control is naturally prone to stress. Given how the biological wiring of human sexuality is not conducive to that kind of narrow expression, there’s bound to be temptation. The best way to combat temptation is through stigma and taboo. By hijacking powerful feelings like guilt, it’s possible heavily influence peoples’ sex lives, even if it’s impossible to control them.

It’s akin to putting lead weights on somebody’s limbs and convincing them that the weight is normal. Even if they come to accept that, the weight still skews perceptions and that can only do so much in terms of circumventing basic biology. It also means that when those weights come off, the effect is pretty striking.

Suddenly, the stigma that once kept someone from seeking the sex they desired are gone. The burdens associated with thoughts and feelings that religious institutions deem unholy are lifted. Like any form of stress relief, it can be pretty liberating.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the 2011 survey is conclusive. It has been criticized for being unscientific in some aspects. Some of those criticisms are valid and the researchers concede that, but to the extent the data is consistent with what we understand about how religion can affect our sexuality, it passes some critical filters.

Our sex lives are complicated. Religion, in its many forms, is complicated as well. Regardless of how you feel about one or the other, mixing them is almost certain to compound both. Atheism, like not playing a sport or not having a hobby, simply removes one of those complications.

It’s not a universal fix. It doesn’t subvert other potential issues that may undermine someone’s sex life. There’s plenty more research to be done and religion is still evolving with each passing year, but when it comes to removing divinely-imposed, theologically-driven guilt, atheism stimulates the necessary aspects that make for a satisfying sex life.

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What It Means To “Man Up” And Why It’s Changing (For The Worse)

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It wasn’t that long ago that parents and peers emphasized the importance of “manning up” to young boys. There would come a point in a kid’s life where he was encouraged to do more than just grow up. He was expected to push himself in a unique way, fighting and sacrificing for those who couldn’t. Sometimes, those expectations were unreasonable and a little unhealthy, but it was part of the overall gender dynamic.

That dynamic has been changing a great deal over the past several decades. I’m young enough to have grown up during many of those changes, but old enough to remember the old traditions associated with “manning up.” The sheer breadth of that change has been remarkable, but not entirely in a good way.

For the most part, I was never pushed too hard to man up by others. My friends and family encouraged me to push myself, but never to the point where I felt pressure or anxiety. I often ended up pushing myself, whether it involved going to college or moving out of my parents’ house.

That’s not say I didn’t feel any pressure to “man up” at any point in my life. Beyond my friends and family, I was as vulnerable to expectations surrounding masculinity as anyone. Most of the time, those expectations involved little things like stepping up to fix a problem, helping out those who were physically limited, and enduring pain or discomfort in the name of a particular goal.

Overall, I feel as though these expectations were either healthy or benign. Some of those standards could’ve been gender neural. When you see someone in a wheelchair at the grocery store struggling to get something from a shelf, it’s neither masculine nor feminine to help them. That’s just common courtesy.

In recent years, however, the whole notion of “manning up” has gained new a new complications. Some of them are ideological. Some of them are politically motivated. It’s because of these various nuances that I put the term in quotes because its meaning keeps shifting, gaining and losing connotations year by year. At some point, the term itself may become empty.

In contemplating that meaning, I thought briefly about the connotations that term had back when I was a kid. I doubt my interpretation was definitive, but I like to think it captured the spirit of the term. When someone told me to “man up,” this is what I took it to mean.

  • Grow up and mature
  • Take responsibility and solve your own problems
  • Stop whining and start doing something about it
  • Quit being satisfied with mediocrity and push yourself
  • Be stronger and tougher in difficult situations
  • Work hard and endure for the good of others who can’t

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of these same traits associated with superheroes, as espoused by the comic books I read and the cartoons I watched. They might have colored my perspective on masculinity and “manning up,” but I suspect these ideals were still consistent with healthy masculinity. The fact that characters like Wonder Woman and Storm of the X-men had some of these traits was just a bonus.

Now, as I contemplate the meaning of “manning up” in its current context, those don’t seem to have the same prominence they once did. There are also a new host of expectations surrounding the term that are fueled, in part, by identity politics. Some even conflict with others, which adds even more complications.

To get a feel for those complications, I posed a question on Reddit on what “manning up” meant to them. The response somewhat surprised me. Most wouldn’t have found their way into the comic books or cartoons I consumed as a kid, to say the least. They involved ideas such as this.

  • Checking your privileged and making way for those your kind has oppressed
  • Acknowledging the crimes and guilt of your gender, as a whole
  • Sacrificing any advantage or benefits that being a man might have once conferred
  • Subjecting yourself to greater degradation in the name of greater equality
  • Learning about all the ways men have ruined society and the world
  • Accepting that the things men love are unhealthy, damaging, and detrimental

None of these are very positive traits for those being told to “man up.” It’s basically a less overt way to tell them that them being a man is “problematic,” a term that has also gained one too many complications. It’s a term reserved for those who appear to be benefiting too much from being a man who isn’t subject to the rigors of childbirth, rampant sexism, and a long history of exploitation.

Never mind the fact that no one alive to day is directly responsible for the injustices their ancestors committed. They’re also not responsible for the injustices their particular race, gender, or ethnicity committed. It happened in the past. Yes, parts of that past were horrible, but punishing people in the present doesn’t make it less horrific. If anything, it just tries to fight one injustice with another.

This is where the concept of “manning up” really loses whatever positive connotations it once held. It’s a sentiment that many responders to my Reddit question shared. When they contemplate that term, they interpret as someone telling them that they need to endure, suffer, or overlook a particular aspect of their identity.

A few posters went so far as to say the term can be replaced with “serve my interests” and carry the same meaning. While I don’t entirely agree with that notion, I can understand why it would feel that way. Being a man, I sometimes feel like I’m expected to get to the front of the line when the time comes to sacrifice. I won’t go so far as to say I find it oppressive, but it certainly feels like I’m held to a different standard.

Sometimes, that standard can be unreasonable. That was another common theme of the responses I got. The notion of “manning up” denotes operating in a way to avoid a particular stigma that others wouldn’t incur for the same behavior. It’s not always ideological, but the pressure is there.

A man who is too emotional is considered a sissy and has to “man up.” A woman or even a gay man who does this won’t face that stigma.

A man who is reluctant to sacrifice for the well-being of another group is considered selfish and should “man up.” A woman or another minority who show a similar reluctance can do the same, but won’t face the same stigma.

A man who shows his pain when he’s harassed is told to suck it up and “man up.” A woman or minority who is harassed can expect plenty of supporters who will cheer them on. Even if men are subject to more overall harassment, they don’t get any sympathy. They’re told to “man up” while everyone else is allowed to seek social support without much scrutiny.

This, I feel, is the ultimate tragedy of the concept. A term that once use to reflect certain ideals for men has now become an instrument of ridicule. It’s no longer a lesson for boys to learn. It’s a rhetorical shortcut that allows someone to hold an entire group of people to a different standard, one that requires them to go out of their way for someone else.

I don’t doubt that there are instances where it’s good for society that some people go out of their way to help others. For those who are disabled, elderly, or ill, it’s just more just and compassionate to set a different standard for ourselves. We don’t ask someone who is missing a limb or suffering from ALS to “man up.” We go out of our way to help them.

It’s the extent of those instances, however, that seems to be damaging the notion. It’s no longer sufficient to just have a particular ailment or shortcoming. Just being someone who isn’t a man who can claim some sort of injustice, be it historical or contemporary, is sufficient.

I believe that’s a dangerous precedent for men and women, for that matter. It sends the message that in order for there to be more justice and equality, an entire group of people need to sacrifice to an extent where they have to be the villains. They have to come to the table, surrender unconditionally, and admit they were wrong and they were the cause of the problem.

That may not be sentiment of those telling someone to “man up,” but that’s how it’s being interpreted. It’s less a masculine ideal and more a shaming tactic, one that is more likely to incur a backlash rather than get someone to reconsider their understanding of gender roles.

I still feel like there’s a way to recapture the positive elements of “manning up.” Gender dynamics is one of those concepts that’s always evolving. Sometimes, there’s progress. Sometimes, there are setbacks. At the moment, I think masculinity and femininity are going through some growing pains as they adapt to a changing world. That process is likely to involve plenty of conflicts and controversies along the way.

In the long run, though, I think society will find a healthy balance with respect to “manning up.” I think there’s a way to use that notion to bring out the best in men and women alike. It’ll likely take plenty of work, toil, and sacrifice from everyone involved in gender-driven controversies, but it’s definitely worth doing.

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Why Linking Human Trafficking And Prostitution Hurts Efforts To Deal With Both

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As a quick thought experiment, take a moment to picture the appearance and circumstances of a typical plumber. Chances are you’re imagining a big-bellied, greasy-haired, middle-aged man who prides himself on wearing old jeans that expose his butt crack. As stereotypes come, it’s fairly crude, but harmless for the most part.

Now, take a moment to picture a typical victim of human trafficking. Chances are the images you conjure are a lot more distressing. Depending on how much you’ve read into the issue, you can picture a scared young woman from a foreign country huddled in a corner, traumatized and broken after being exploited by her ruthless captors.

Chances are, those ruthless captors conjure some nasty images as well. You imagine they’re sadistic, deviant men who smile at the sight of a scared young woman, having to sell herself sexually in order to pay off a debt that she didn’t even ask for. Such men are the closest thing we have to real-world super-villains.

In terms of terrible crimes, human trafficking ranks near the top in terms of things that offend every sense of decency, humanity, and justice. It’s one of those crimes that’s so horrific that it’s almost impossible to scrutinize without a sense of outrage clouding our judgment. Any effort to do so is usually overshadowed by the horrors of the crime itself.

Despite those obstacles, it’s still an issue worth discussing. If anything, the fact that human trafficking is such an egregious crime makes it that much more relevant. When there’s something that’s so objectively evil, people tend to line up in droves to play the role of a hero. It’s not quite like virtue signaling because this is an actual crime with actual victims.

However, and this is where I’m sure I’ll lose some people, the assumptions surrounding human trafficking and the efforts to combat it aren’t as clear cut. That image of a typical human trafficking victim that I described earlier is, like the plumber, a popular perception that doesn’t quite reflect reality.

Now, none of that is to say that human trafficking isn’t a terrible crime and a serious problem. I want to make that abundantly clear before moving forward. The point I want to make here has more to do with our attitudes towards this crime, its association with prostitution, and how it reflects certain gender dynamics.

For better or for worse, human trafficking is linked to prostitution. It’s major component of the popular perceptions surrounding the crime. As such, a great deal of opposition to the legalization of prostitution comes from the idea that it will increase human trafficking. The veracity of that claim does have some data behind it, but even the most comprehensive studies concede that the link is inconclusive at best.

It’s that link though, however true it might be, that gives human trafficking its insidious reputation. It’s why it is often cited by feminists, human rights advocates, and moral crusaders as an issue worthy of outrage. Battling human trafficking means battling exploitation, sexual promiscuity, and exploited women all at once. That appeals to a lot of people, but it also obscures the true nature of the crime.

That nature is not entirely dependent on sex or prostitution. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), approximately 22 percent of estimated 20.9 million human trafficking victims are exploited for forced sexual labor. That’s still way too many people being exploited, but what about that other 78 percent?

That portion of human trafficking victims are primarily forced into labor of a non-sexual nature. That labor includes work in sectors such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing. That kind of exploitation affects victims of any gender, as well. While women make up about 55 percent of the victims, that still leaves 45 men and young boys, who can also be sexually exploited as well.

The hard data alone undermines the popular perceptions surrounding human trafficking, but it gets even more complicated than that. Since human trafficking is a criminal enterprise that’s exceedingly difficult to prosecute, it’s hard to get accurate data on the scope and scale of the issue.

Back in 2001, a terrifying report from the University of Pennsylvania made headlines by claiming that approximately 300,000 children, mostly young girls, were being sexually exploited. Understandably, this caused a lot of outrage and horror among politicians and activists.

That claim was not accurate, by the way. The report, which was based on outdated data from the 1990s, only covered children “at risk” of being sexually exploited. It didn’t refer to actual victims. That data is harder to come by, but most figures are nowhere near that egregious number. In addition, the methodology for gathering such data is both incomplete in some areas and flawed in others.

Even with those flaws, though, the perceptions surrounding human trafficking and the mental images it conjures are more than sufficient for people with agendas to garner support. Unfortunately, it’s not the forced labor or the 45 percent of victims who are male that get the attention. It’s the women and the sex that gets the emphasis.

As a result, policies and legislation intended to combat this issue tend to focus primarily on that component. Earlier this year, a couple of major laws were passed with the stated intent of combating human trafficking. However, the primary impact is being felt by sex workers, as a whole.

These laws explicitly mentioned sex trafficking. It said nothing about forced labor, which makes up the bulk of human trafficking victims if the data from the ILO is accurate. That’s akin to passing a bill that punishes the maker of ski masks rather than focusing on those who actually use them to commit crimes.

That’s not to say efforts to combat the sexual exploitation of young women aren’t justified. However, why does that particular variation of a crime warrant more laws and resources than another? Why is sexual exploitation the main focus and not the forced labor that is more likely to impact men and boys?

It says something about both our priorities and our attitudes when the exploited sexuality of women is given a greater priority than the enslavement of men. It sends the message that the pain of a sexually exploited woman is somehow greater than that of an exploited man. Pain is still pain, last I checked. When you prioritize one, you undermine the other, by default.

Moreover, those noble efforts to combat human trafficking may end up making the situation worse by coupling it with anti-prostitution efforts. Like the war on drugs, making prostitution illegal does nothing to mitigate the demand for prostitution, nor does it make things easier for those who are prostitutes. It just puts the industry in the hands of criminals.

In recent years, it has become popular in some countries to pass laws that prohibit the buying of sex, but not the selling of sex. It’s an approach that still criminalizes part of an act and, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, it has not achieved the desired effect of reducing prostitution or human trafficking.

It’s because of these shortcomings in combating both prostitution and human trafficking that organizations like Amnesty International now favor the full decriminalization of prostitution and stricter laws against forced labor. To date, no country has attempted to enact such a policy.

That’s not to say that Amnesty International’s measure will eliminate all instances of human trafficking or forced prostitution. Like any imperfect society, there will be cases of injustice and exploitation. However, that’s exactly why it’s so important to have reasonable policies that emphasize the full spectrum of an issue.

Human trafficking is a terrible crime. Forced labor, be it sexual or otherwise, is just as terrible. There’s no denying that, regardless of how uncertain we may be of its prevalence. By focusing only on its links to prostitution, though, we don’t just undermine the full scope of the crime. We do a disservice to all victims, regardless of gender.

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