Miri has posted an excellent “…Review of the White House’s Report on Campus Sexual Violence which is a must read for anyone interested in sexual assault on campuses, and everyone should be concerned about this issue.

I would like to address one aspect of the problem here, briefly: the use of and concern over the term “rape culture.”

When I first encountered the term “rape culture” I was put off by it. I’ve lived in and directly studied, and indirectly studied through the literature, a wide range of cultures around the world, and there is a great range of variation in prevalence of and attitudes about rape. Now and then there emerge circumstances in which rape becomes extremely common. It has been said that for a period of time during the Second Congo War rape accounted for nearly 100% of the intercourse, babies, and of course, violent deaths of women, in certain regions. And so on. I was concerned that the term “rape culture” applied in the US watered down consideration of the more severe end of this distribution.

It did not take long, however, for me to realize this was a rather bone-headed way of looking at it. For one thing, the actual definitions of rape culture in use do not in any way limit its application to those extreme and horrific cases. Also, culture is complex. We tend to collect data, make generalizations, and see solutions at societal levels such as entire nations or even continents, not at the level of “cultures” which are, in any event, edgeless complex interconnected entities despite the common use of the shorthand term (“culture”). The elements of rape culture can be in place in a country or region where rape is more rare, or more common.

An excellent definition of rape culture is provided by Marshall University’s Women’s Center:

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.

The same web page goes on to provide examples (i.e., blambing the victim, tolerating sexual harassment, inflating false repe report statistics, and so on) and also provides a few tips to combat it (changes i language, social engagement, critical thinking, respect, etc.).

Rape culture is a thing, and it applies in the US. The fact that it probably actually applies everywhere (Do you know of any exceptions? If so please elaborate in the comments below!) does not actually water down the definition but rather, exposes the underpinnings of rape culture as a human-wide problem. This indicates it either stems from the basic evolutionary biology of humans or ubiquitous common cultural features of human societies (such as a self perpetuating patriarchy) or, more likely, a causal structure that exists independently of our post hoc notions of nature and nurture.

Politically, rape culture has another aspect; it is a touchstone to the inimical false debate between so-called “Mens Rights Advocates” and basic humanistic, including feminist, values. To get a feel for this check out the definition of “Rape Culture” in Wikipedia, and scroll down to the “Criticisms” section. Here we see one of the points Miri addresses in her post; the recent RAINN report’s assertion that while cultural factors may be important, “… it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.” This is problematic because it asserts that individual decisions arise somehow outside of the purview of enculturation, which I’m pretty sure is nearly impossible. The statement “It is estimated that in college, 90% of rapes are committed by 3% of the male population, though it is stipulated that they do not have reliable numbers for female perpetrators.” may be technically correct but a) the percentage of the subset of society under consideration (in this case those who are in college or living on college campuses) is not a measure of the importance of a relevant cultural driver, and b) note the MRA dog whistle – “it happens to us men too.”

The Criticisms section sites Caroline Kitchensi’s ironically titled opinion piece “Its Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.” Kitchensi is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing “think” tank which is exactly where I would look to find a female willing to fill stinky shoes of an Mens Rights Advocate for the purpose of toning down public discourse on rape. The section also brings in the critique by Christina Sommers, libertarian anti-feminist. And so on. I’m not claiming here that these criticisms are invalid or should not be heard (though I quickly add that I disagree with them). I’m just pointing out that the use of “rape culture” invokes the MRA counter-argument (to almost everything) as its main counter-point. This is what we see in many other areas of public discourse as well. If the main critique of a new study on anthropogenic global warming comes from other climate scientists that’s one thing. If the main critique comes from the usual cadre of science denialists many in the employee directly or indirectly of the petroleum and coal industries, that’s another thing. The litany of critiques of the “rape culture” idea in the seemingly well updated entry in Wikipedia comes from the usual suspects, not from within the sociological or anthropological, or even criminological, communities where spirited debate about almost everything is the norm. This does not prove anything but it is a clue.

One could argue that “rape culture” has become a dog whistle for feminism, or even a particular brand of feminism. That might actually be true. But any concept that tries to link cultural context to appropriately scrutinized individual behaviors is going to get dog whistled by the opposition.

Go read Miri’s post and pay attention to the links to key resources concerning rape.

Warning, rapey themes and strong language, go away if you can’t handle that.

Which is worse, rape threats or lightening up about rape threats? Since I hardly ever get rape threats and the ones I get are absurd, it is not really for me to say. The question here, is what does a woman who is active on line and gets numerous and scary rape (and other) threats feel about those threats vs. advice from allies(ish) who say “don’t worry about it, just leave that behind.”

This is tricky stuff, because the overt strategy one takes can vary depending on circumstances and there are a lot of valid strategies one can choose, but few strategies one can foist on others.

A person who is outspoken about a particular issue and receives threats over that issue could take those threats very seriously, calling in authorities, hardening defenses, counter-agitating or counter-activating, and so on, while publicly not talking about the threats at all, or perhaps very publicly brushing them off.

Or, the recipient of the threats could do something very different, bringing the details out in the open, making clear to her audience what is happening and why it is wrong, and making the whole thing very public, in order that people know. And maybe that people change. Or, at lest, that social expectations change ands some people shut up.

These two strategies differ in a number of ways. The former strategy may effectively neutralize some of the threats, those from attention seekers who are themselves paying attention, perhaps, but it will do little to stop or slow down threats from your basic miscreant. The latter strategy is likely to generate more threats because, simply, more jerks become aware of a particular target, but the public strategy serves a larger, very important purpose of educating people to the fact that these things happen, and not only that, but they happen commonly and are rather severe to say the least.

It is really up to the person who is at the receiving end of this horrible stuff to make that decision. One thing can be said, though: because of the dynamics of interaction on the internet, the woman who calls out the harassers in order to move us all forward, in the general direction of civilization (which is slowly being reinvented on the Internet) and widespread social justice, is ultimately hurting herself for the benefit of others. When a man does that sort of thing, Internet society calls him a hero. When a woman does that sort of thing, Internet society at best questions her motives, but commonly does worse. She is labeled as a cunt.

Here is my friend and colleague Rebecca Watson laying out her position on this issue in her most recent YouTube vlog, “Dear Guy Who Wants Me to Stop Talking About Feminism“. She addresses the question that is the title of this post.

I’m not embedding Rebecca’s video here because I want you to GO TO HER YOUTUBE CHANNEL and watch the video there. That way, if you feel like leaving a comment, you’ll be there. I assume most, perhaps all, readers of my blog will be supportive and thoughtful. Otherwise go fuck yourself, OK?

Thank you very much that is all.

Content warning: Severe obnoxiousosity.

I cribbed this from NPR. The Brain Scoop channel is here. If you’ve not watched it you are missing some good stuff!

…Emily Graslie’s “The Brain Scoop” is one of the warmest, slyest video blogs on the web. She’s where I go to find out what museum scientists are up to — and right now she’s at the Field Museum in Chicago, where she wanders from department to department, exploring, delighting, asking questions that you and I would ask if someone gave us a free pass to gawk our way through one of the great natural history museums in the world. So I was more than a little surprised to catch her recent post, a meditation on the mail she gets.

Listen to the whole thing, please.

Did you know that there is a “Lesbian Apocalypse” coming? No? I didn’t either, but apparently there is one. From Wipedia:

Catherine “Cathy” Brennan is an attorney in the state of Maryland and a prominent supporter of “trans-critical” radical feminism. Her main accomplishment in this regard is coauthoring a letter to the United Nations, insisting that trans people’s gender identity should not be legally recognized and protected. She is also a frequent columnist for Baltimore OUTloud’s LGBTQ blog section, which she uses to warn of the coming “lesbian annihilation” at the hands of “the queers” and trans people and stridently argue against legislation protecting gender identity.

I received a note from Secular Women linking to a petition to the Southern Poverty Law Center asking for the SPLC to treat Brennan’s organization as a hate group. Having never heard of trans-critical radical feminism, I worried at first that this was one of those awful breakdowns among allies (in this case, feminists) over how some issue or another is being handled, which had escalated to the extreme outcome of labeling a group with different views but within the same movement as a hate group. This didn’t seem like something Secular Women would do. So, I followed the links and read up on it a bit, and apparently this is a thing. Here’s the letter I got from Secular Women:

Southern Poverty Law Center:
Monitor “Gender Identity Watch”
as a Hate Group

As a feminist organization, Secular Woman promotes gender equality. We stand against and combat sexism, hate, intolerance, and misogyny.

Transgender women are women.

Cisgender women are women.

We do not, in any way, view the existence of transgender women, genderqueer individuals or transgender men as a threat to the safety of women, female identity, or the goals of feminism.

As intersectional feminists we acknowledge the privilege that cisgender people experience. We aim to dismantle the axis of oppression that this represents.
Unfortunately, not all who claim the label “feminist” agree with us. They do not represent us and we reject their actions and views as unethical and devoid of reason.
We stand in opposition.

Members of our community have been targeted by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Personal information such as former names, current legal names, and photographs have been compiled and displayed on the website “Name the Problem”. Several of the entries are self-attributed to “Pegasus” (“PegasusBug” is a pseudonym of Cathy Brennan, the head of Gender Identity Watch). This information was presented alongside reports describing rapists and batterers of women.

Countless others, including members of transgender advocacy groups have reported similar treatment, as well as other alarming behavior, such as Cathy Brennan contacting employers, schools and medical doctors of transgender women, girls and young men.

This is unacceptable.

It is anathema to our vision of a future in which women have the opportunities and resources they need to participate openly and confidently in every aspect of society.
Cathy Brennan’s tactics, as described, are reprehensible, reckless, and irresponsible as they have the potential to embolden violence and harassment of those she targets and to result in job loss and other discrimination informed by the open knowledge of the target’s transgender status.

Refusal to afford transgender women inclusion, safety, and civil rights is a form of misogyny that is antithetical to feminism.

We invite fellow feminists and secularists, as well as others concerned, to proactively affirm the inclusion of all women as women. Condemn the toxic ideologies used to rationalize hate, fear, and discrimination based on gender.

Stand with us in petitioning the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to track the activities of Cathy Brennan’s Gender Identity Watch as a hate group in accordance with SPLC’s stated mission.

Signed in Solidarity,

Secular Woman
Stop Abuse Online

Trinity Aodh, Melody Hensley, M. A. Melby, Veronica K. Berglyd Olsen, Kim Rippere, Mary Ellen Sikes, Dana Lane Taylor

Please sign the petition here!

Click through to follow the documenting links. Sign the petition.

Laura Helmuth has written what I think is one of the most important posts so far to emerge from the fray that is Bora Zivkovic’s: Don’t Be a Creep: Lessons from the latest terrible, sad, fascinating scandal in the science blogging world. Before getting to what I think is the most important part of her post, I want to first say what the most important overall lessons are, clearly, from this whole maneno, because they are different than the lesson Laura writes about:

1) Men behaving poorly in relation to women, in the context of power imbalances (but also without the power imbalance) is widespread to the extent that many women (meaning, guys, many of the women you personally know) are subjected to some kind of bad behavior or another on a regular basis, ranging from random out of the blue unwanted sexual attention to being placed in a position of needing to appease some man’s interests in order to be taken seriously or given the same access to opportunities as a man might get without socio-sexual extortion, and of course, worse. I am constantly astonished at the degree to which men who claim to be well informed about sexism and who claim, even, to be feminists are incredulous when confronted with personal stories such as “I get hit on by strangers every single day on the bus” or “I’ve gotten harassed in a professional context way more times than I can count … this month” etc. Such statements are too often assumed to be exaggerations. Also, harassment and unwanted sexual attention of this sort is often assumed by those who don’t experience it to be not that big of a deal. The truth is, how big of a deal it is for a person is a matter of that person’s experience, and I would guess, plus some two-digit number of percent to account for the fact that we humans are good at putting away a certain amount of bad experience for our psyches to use later against us. Indeed, many men view “unwanted sexual attention” as a good thing, something they themselves would like more of. That is called being clueless.

OK, this set of closely related facts did not emerge from the Bora thing, it was already there, but we are reminded to remind ourselves and each other of this. And, also not discovered over the last weekend but in need of restating and emphasis:

2) Women who are subject to sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (of a wide range) … i.e., women … probably usually feel uncomfortable talking about these things, or for that matter, doing something about their own experiences. We should assume that a contributing factor in this discomfort is the widespread and incorrect writing off of the experience as either rare or not so bad (see number one above). So, when a woman does come forward with a well described very credible (and especially, verified by the other person in the deal, the harasser) the automatic reaction should be to support that woman in whatever way we can, minimally by accepting the person’s account of their own reaction, pain, or trouble. What it means to that person is what the thing was (plus the above cited mark-up, I assume), not what you or I or anyone else thinks it means.

But what was Laura’s special insight that I wanted to mention? It has to do with mentoring. Mentoring is considered very important in most professions, and in academia. The idea is that a young student, upper division college or graduate school, or a post doc who is on a particular career track, gets a mentor, an established professional who can help guide that person through the process of professional development, around the land mines, towards key objectives, etc. etc. This sounds like a good thing, and in fact, it is a good thing when it works. More notably, I think, in our current system it is demonstrably a bad thing when mentoring does not occur at all or is done poorly. Students and early stage professionals who, in our current system, either don’t really end up with a mentor, or who are mentored by a bad mentor, can suffer and do poorly.

The fact that the absence of mentoring or poor mentoring has negative consequences naturally and perhaps reasonably leads us to conclude that mentoring is good and there should be more of it, and mentors should be trained better to do a better job. And that is not entirely wrong.

But, maybe we should be looking at this very differently. Laura Helmuth says:

We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.


I’ve always taken mentoring very seriously, but Laura indirectly points out that mentoring and its value is received knowledge not sufficiently examined with a critical eye. I’ve paid attention to and analyzed the mentoring I received (or didn’t) and I think my own experience actually follows Larua’s model pretty well. Irv DeVore was my longest-term mentor, and he was a great colleague, a close friend, and helped me a lot, and he was a good mentor, but when it came to my research, mostly hands off. Rather, he helped me get grants. Informally, Nancy DeVore (Irv’s wife) was my writing mentor, and she is the second toughest and best editor I’ve ever worked with. I’m not sure if she ever actually slapped me but I sure felt like it a few times. DeVore followed the Helmuth Model in that he handed me off to others who were more expert in the areas of research and methods that I needed, and actually, he didn’t hand me off, I went and found them. As a result of this, my PhD thesis was signed by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Israeli archaeologist, Irv DeVore, primatologist, Mark Pagel, statistician and evolutionary theorist, and John Yellen, ethnoarchaeologist and head of Anthropolgoy at NSF. Pretty nice range of dudes (and yes, all dudes, all good ol’ boys but mostly the good kind, I’m sure). Of these people I regard DeVore, Bar-Yosef and Pagel as having been mentors. John was a colleague and outside reader (we did not live in the same city or even state). After graduate school, no other individuals who could ever be called a mentor for me ever did anything along these lines that was of any use, especially at the junior faculty level, aside from continued support from Irv, of course.

I think and hope (or convince myself it is true!) that I’ve been been a pretty good mentor for some of my students. But what follows Larua’s model is the degree to which my mentoring relationship with each student has been completely different from every other student. There have been students with whom I’ve worked intensively on both writing and research, spending hours going over stuff and working on things together. With other students, my role has been almost entirely to represent the student at faculty meetings and write recommendations, but otherwise just get an update now and then from the student (so I could do those two things well). In the latter case, the mentee was typically being advised on research by one or more other individuals more closely involved in the particular work being done, generally at research facilities elsewhere (on campus or beyond) as needed. I’ve taken the job of mentoring seriously, and been fairly thoughtful about it, and consciously tried to find the best solution for each student. But, and this proves Laura’s point, there has been absolutely no relationship as far as I can tell between the amount of direct involvement I’ve had with a particular student, vs the student assembling a longer list of colleagues to help in research and career development, and those student’s success or happiness. In other words, a solid and intense one-on-one mentoring relationship did not produce the best results. There was no clear difference between one-on-one mentoring and students finding a collection of colleagues to work with (my advice being sometimes but often not useful in doing that).

The best advice I’ve probably given students, and I’ve given this to all my students since I started any kind of advisory role as a freshly minted PhD, is this: Advice (including this advice I’m giving you now) is not necessarily worth anything. Advice is a reaction someone else in the world has to something you did, something you showed them, or something they observed. Understand their advice in that context, and use it, modify it, or ignore it as you see fit. I think this advice might correspond to what Laura is saying. Develop relationships with a range of colleagues (many of whom will be your senior when you are starting out) and do what makes sense. For the potential mentor, take your role in doing the same thing; help your students develop multiple contacts and relationships with both individuals and other entities (labs, institutions, etc.) as needed.

Obviously Laura’s advice is meant to help mainly young women to avoid finding themselves in power differential fueled bad mentee positions. But this approach works more broadly than that. The smaller number of students with whom I worked closest are those with whom I’m still in most regular contact and in some cases whom I consider friends, or for whom I’m still playing a similar role. Indeed, I’m writing five letters of recommendation for jobs or grants over the next two weeks and they are all for students with whom I worked closest. Meanwhile I know some of my other students are moving from post-doc to junior faculty, or beyond, or getting grants, mainly using recommendations from those specific experts they worked with while working on their degrees, because those are the people in the subfields and the most appropriate recommenders.

And bringing it back to the first two points made above, before we started talking about mentoring, as Laura says, “recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. … you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep.”

In case you missed it here’s the link to that post.

Secular Woman is an organization I’m proud to be a member of. SW has released a statement responding to the latest dust up in the Secular-Atheist-Skeptical Community in which CFI leader Ron Lindsay somehow got assigned the job of giving the welcoming/opening talk to the second Women in Secularism Conference, and made a big mess of it.

Here’s the first part of the statement, click through to read the rest:

The Secular Woman Board of Directors, in consultation with our most active members and supporters, regrets having to express our organization’s deep concern over recent public statements from Dr. Ron Lindsay, Center for Inquiry (CFI) CEO, during and following that organization’s Women in Secularism (WiS) conference this past weekend.

Secular Woman promoted the WiS event heavily with our membership for months. During this period we raised $2190 that enabled seven women, relatively new to the secular movement, to experience an event they would not otherwise have had the means to attend. Based on member feedback, we estimate that another 25 of the reported 300 WiS attendees were at the conference because of Secular Woman’s encouragement. Additionally, 57% of our Board of Directors was present.

Through Secular Woman’s @AbortTheocracy campaign, thousands of our fans, followers and members have been made aware of CFI’s efforts in the area of reproductive rights. In fact, CFI is the only organization to have taken advantage of this service announced to secular leaders on an internal list-serv for leaders in the secular movement.

Given our support and the aims of WiS, we find it stunningly unacceptable that Dr. Lindsay chose to greet our members, our Board, and other attendees with his personal, ill-formed criticisms of feminism rather than welcoming us all to the conference we had promoted and paid to attend. Worse, he instead chose to personally welcome a man who has harassed and antagonized many of the speakers scheduled for the weekend, and who now has an interview about the conference on the front page of the website of A Voice for Men, which is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their misogynistic content.

We are incredulous that in a conference about women in the secular movement Dr. Lindsay was completely silent about the threats, harassment, and stalking that many atheist women have experienced at the hands of other atheists. Additionally, we are truly appalled by the tone and content of his blog post, “Watson’s World and Two Models of Communication,” in which he bizarrely compares Rebecca Watson’s writings to missives from North Korea, misuses a Secular Woman statement to his own purposes, and claims that those who are active feminists cannot be real reason-and-evidence based secularists.

Not having seen an apology, retraction, or other followup to these official communications, we are forced to arrive at several conclusions:

Click Through.

… Warning abuse triggers …

Breakthrough’s video -Mann ke Manjeeré- winner of the Screen Awards 2001 in India and nominated for MTV’s ‘Best Indipop Music Video’, reached 26 million households via six satellite music television channels, effectively mainstreaming discussions about domestic violence issues throughout South Asia and reaching as far as Tajikistan, Indonesia and the United States.

One Billion Strong

The other day, PZ Myers noted in a Blog post the remembrance of the École Polytechnique massacre in which Marc Lépine hunted down and killed 14 women, injured another 10 women and a handful of men, as his way of striking out against feminism. To be clear, he was hunting down and killing feminists because he felt that feminism had caused his application to the school to be rejected.

PZ made the rather bold implication that the MRA’s, anti-feminists and slymepitters of today’s Skeptic and Secular movement were part of the same entity … cultural manifestation, way of thinking, whatever … as Marc Lépine. He is right, of course. Naturally, as Chris Clarke has pointed out, there was push back. Was PZ being fair to misogynysts? Well, no, and why should he be? But that’s not what I really want to talk about here. Here, I want to talk about something closely related, including but not limited to the visceral, limibic gasp a friend of mine let out when realizing for the first time, on reading PZ’s post, that the École Polytechnique massacre had even happened. That horrific event was before her time and she didn’t know. Continue reading

This is the year of the woman in the US Congress and elsewhere, despite the best efforts of some to make sure that the opposite happened.

This is the year in which the Right Wing carried out the most anti-woman campaign ever since suffrage, or at least, so it would appear, along with a continued attack on non-hetero persons. A defining moment in this campaign occurred in February, when the Republican controlled House carried out a nearly comical hearing on women’s reproductive rights. Continue reading