Monday, June 18, 2012

Women who don't like sexual aggression from strangers are prudish children. Or childish prudes. Or something.

I don't like Psychology Today, part 2:

So Elyse of Skepchick wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago describing an incident that followed a talk on vaccination she gave at Skepticamp in Ohio. You can read the entire thing here, but to put it briefly, a couple she didn't know aside from a friend request on Facebook approached her after the talk and handed her a card. A business card-like card, which the male half of the couple gave her before the two of them proceeded to vacate the premises. After they'd gone, Elyse turned the card over, noticed a nude picture of the couple on the other side of it along with an invitation to hook up with them and contact information for such, and realized that she had been propositioned for a threesome by strangers out of nowhere while doing her job.


As you might expect, this was a disconcerting experience for Elyse, and in that post she carefully walks through the details of why that is, and why this is not the kind of thing you should do at a conference. Considering that sexual conduct at skepticism conferences is such a big topic right now, I was happy that she did that and didn't just post an account of what happened accompanied by a scan of the card, saying "See? See this? This is the kind of thing we're talking about! Don't do it!" Nope, she articulated what made her feel uncomfortable and why. And she did it, I would note, without any mention of whether it constitutes "harassment."

Unlike Dr. Marty Klein, who wrote about this incident-- yes, I think it's fair to say that it's this incident he was writing about-- as apparently heard third or fourth hand via a drunken discussion with someone who skimmed the post a couple of weeks ago and might or might not have already decided that Elyse is a hysterical female bent on destroying a conference over a slight, because that is how Klein portrays things. I say I think it's fair to say he was writing about this incident and not a "composite," as he claims, for a few reasons. First because the description is quite detailed, and the details of time and place and person align to Elyse's experience-- as she says, "Now, to be fair, he doesn’t name me, so it could be another particular blogger in her mid-30s who was handed a swingers card at a conference. I’m sure there are hundreds of us around." Second and third because the caveat that the description was a "composite" was apparently added after the fact, and I know for certain that some important wording was changed which made the description align more closely to Elyse's actual experience, and there's no reason to do this if it wasn't intended to describe her in the first place.

That important wording? Klein's article originally said that the entirely hypothetical couple had "gotten friendly with" the woman prior to handing her the invitation-to-a-threesome card. Now it says they simply "approached" her. More accurate, yes, and it makes Klein's depiction of her reaction seem much less justified. It also was apparently edited in the Psychology Today article without any acknowledgement of such, after Elyse noticed it and said something. Here's what she said:
Klein starts off with one tiny change in the details of my experience, one tiny change that alters the entire context of the situation. In Klein’s version of my story, “John” and “Mary” have reason to believe I might be interested in joining them to socialize our genitals. Now, if by “gotten friendly” he means “accepted Facebook friend request” and “stood in front of a room while the couple was present and delivered a talk about how everyone needs to get Tdap”, then yes, I concede, we “got friendly”. But I doubt that’s what he meant. What I think he means is that I was asking for it.
I’m not the one with the PhD in psychology, but I’m fairly certain that if this couple thought that my statement that most children catch pertussis from unvaccinated adults was me secretly dropping subliminal messages that I’d like to get tight and shiny under the stairs with them, then the problem with this interaction does not begin or end with me.
"Tight and shiny under the sheets." I like that.

Anyway, the gist of Klein's article is he basically to portrays this "woman" as prudish, uptight, and vindictive, and the details he changed in the story to make it differ from Elyse's actual experience are all in service of that end. Of course it would still be inappropriate to hand a card bearing a sexual proposition to someone who is prudish, uptight, and vindictive, but it makes her less sympathetic and her feelings of discomfort less easy to empathize with.

Klein makes great effort to argue that "the woman" was not harassed; she received unwanted sexual attention. Elyse points out that she was never talking about the legal definition of sexual harassment; she was talking about what made her feel uncomfortable at a conference and why.

Klein suggests that "the woman" could learn a lesson from history when other bearers of two X chromosomes had it much worse off. Elyse points out that just because things were worse then doesn't mean they're dandy now. The aggravating thing about this gambit is that someone tries to pull it every single time the topic comes up-- "What are you complaining about? Women had/have it worse at time X/place Y!"-- and the absurd thing is that this same argument applies just as well to absolutely anything someone is complaining about, unless of course they happen to be complaining about the worst thing that happened, anywhere, ever. I guess people who are burning in Hell are the only ones who can legitimately complain.

Klein says that "the woman" responded to the incident by trashing the conference at which it happened and discouraging other women from attending it in the future. Elyse points out that this is simply bollocks. As are a lot of other things in his article, but you really should go ahead and read Elyse's full reply for more on that.

Klein's profile on Psychology Today reads:
Marty Klein has been a certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Palo Alto, California for 30 years, working with men, women, and couples on issues of anger, guilt, shame, and power, as well as orgasm, erection, fantasies, desire, S-&-M, pornography, and sexual orientation. 
Klein has written seven books and over 200 articles on sexuality. He is frequently quoted by the popular press, most recently in The New York Times and on ABC-TV’s 20/20, Nightline, and Penn & Teller. He is outspoken about many popular and clinical ideas about sexuality, decrying psychology’s gender stereotypes, sex-negativity, and what he calls “the Oprah-ization of therapy.” He is one of America’s best-known voices opposing the dangerous concept of “sex addiction.” 
"Penn & Teller" actually refers to Penn and Teller's HBO show Bullshit (if we're really not repressed, let's go ahead and say the word), on which Klein appeared in an episode on discussing pornography. As a supportive talking head, he quite rightly pointed out that there is no evidence that watching porn disposes people to sexual violence. Great. Promoting sexual happiness and decrying gender stereotypes and sex-negativity? Great. Making women out to be nun-like ice statues if they register disapproval about being sexually propositioned by strangers? Not so great.

I've written before about how women have this peculiar thing about them-- they like to feel safe. Imagine that. They're no less sexual than men; it's just that women who are openly sexual face a double whammy of danger. They face the real, physical danger of someone attacking them (and the attack being dismissed because hey, she was asking for it), but they also face the social danger of being stigmatized as dirty, stupid, or generally worth less than women who are chaste and modest. It is, of course, possible for women to be overly aggressive with their sexuality-- as was the case with the female half of this couple that propositioned Elyse-- but if they object to other people being overly aggressive with their sexuality, the problem is not with the woman objecting.

There's a sort of "damned if you do; damned if you don't" aspect to that. You can browbeat a woman into being sexual when she doesn't want to, but it will be feeding on her insecurity rather than an authentic enjoyment of such on her part. On the other hand if she is authentically being sexual for her own sake, there is always someone waiting around to call her a slut for it. You would think that as a sex therapist Klein would know all of this, but instead he has opted for browbeating, and on extremely specious grounds no less. Propositioning a woman you don't know in an entirely non-sexual context does not make her feel safe. Don't do it. It's really that easy. That was the message of Elyse's original post, which bypassed Klein entirely-- assuming he ever actually read the thing, which is in doubt.

ETA: While I was writing this a number of edits to Klein's article have come to light, and are noted at the bottom of Elyse's reply.

ETA 2: Six words from Klein's article are now sticking in my craw: "A couple at last year's conference." As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Elyse blogged about her experience a couple of weeks ago. I believe it happened not long before that. This seems like an important discrepancy, and casts some doubt on whether it was really her story that he was focusing on. It would not surprise me in the least to find that there are multiple pairs of swinging couples who proposition people via "business" cards, at conferences and any other social occasion. It's possible that Klein never did actually read--or hear of-- Elyse's account. In which case, I apologize for accusations to the contrary. However, I think all other points still stand.

ETA 3: And one point that stands which I didn't really mention is the false equivalence regarding "unwanted attention." No, not all unwanted attention is created equal. If a sexual proposition from strangers merely counts as "unwanted attention" in the same manner as a visit from Mormon missionaries, then I suppose cat calls fall into that group as well. So a request to buy Girl Scout cookies when you're in a hurry is exactly the same as some guy in a car yelling that he wants to wear your vagina as a hat. No, I fundamentally reject that. Sexually propositioning someone out of nowhere is not a sign of openness and freedom; it's a signal that you are not concerned with that person's feelings of safety and might possibly be deranged. It's also quite commonly, I might note, a means of insulting them. Not all unwanted attention is equal, and I hate to sound like a broken record but it's hard to imagine someone other than a straight male suggesting it is.

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