Archive for the ‘Sexuality’ category

Stephen Fry Shows How It’s Done

October 16, 2013

Via BoingBoing, I came across a clip in which the Stephen Fry demonstrates how to get an idiot to hoist himself on his own petard:

Seriously.  Not only is this a beautiful sequence, one that can be admired (and dissected) purely for its documentary technique, it’s also a brilliant tutorial on the art of interviewing.  Look at how Fry permits his subject to give the viewer precisely what he or she needs to get the point — with never less than perfect politesse from Fry himself.  You could call it interlocutory murder — but there’s nary a scrap of blood on our Stephen’s hands.
A masterclass.

Because It’s The First Friday Of The We Must All Gay Marry Now Epoch

June 28, 2013

Waaaay down at the near-death end of the man-on-grasshopper thread cross-posted at Balloon Juice, someone asked where all the Sesame Street love might be.

Answer:  Onto the cover of The New Yorker.

Someone else in that thread (Different Church Lady, I believe) noted that the art in that post was not exactly the kind of old-mastery stuff y’all have come to expect from round here, so here’s are a couple of possibly appropriately themed pic for those of you hooked on oil paints:





Last, a lagniappe:

Just in case you haven’t exhausted your fowl jokes, here’s perhaps the definitive celebration of duck (and drake!) love:


Yup.  It’s Friday.  And did I mention that it is my son’s last day of school (finally!).  Hence these posts.

You’re welcome.

None Dare Call It Murder

February 1, 2012

I’ve got just one quick note to add to the discussion of the Komen Foundation’s surrender to Greater Wingnuttia and the Global War on Women.

That would be that this decision is not just about the dollars.  It’s genuinely a matter of life and death  — of murder, really, with only the anonymity of the victims to obscure the the connection between act and consequence.*

Y’all may recall that I wrote along these lines about eight months ago in connection with Mitch Daniels’ decision to defund Planned Parenthood in Indiana.  (Yup, that Daniels — the hack our friends in literate Wingnutistan see as the great hope of the GOP).  Now we’re back again to run the numbers on what the removal of the services Planned Parenthood provides to women seeking preventative care for breast cancer will do.**

Here are the basic figures:  over the last five years, the Komen Foundation provided Planned Parenthood with sufficient support to pay for 170,000 breast exams and 6,700 referrals for mammography. The question of how frequent and how early a mammography program should be has been, shall we say, vigorously debated, but the issue gained some clarity last year with the publication of a large scale longitudinal study by Swedish researcher in which over 133,000 women were followed for a total of 29 years.

The results of this study provide low-end estimates for the lives saved by screening:  for every 414 or 519 women screened*** for seven years running, one breast cancer death would be prevented.  What’s more, the researchers emphasized that this is a conservative conclusion:

Evaluation of the full impact of screening, in particular estimates of absolute benefit and number needed to screen, requires follow-up times exceeding 20 years because the observed number of breast cancer deaths prevented increases with increasing time of follow-up.

I’m being deliberately dry in this telling, and I’m sure you can guess why:  I do not wish the conclusion to lose any of its force to misplaced snark.  The bald facts are grim enough.

How grim?  Take the most modest number from this study —519 women screened for each life saved.  That’s on the order of 13 women from the 6,700 screened with Komen Foundation money who get to live.****

Or:  that’s 13 women who will die for lack of those funds.

As I wrote about cervical cancer screening in Indiana:  we won’t know who those women are.  We will never know their names; who loved them; how many kids they will leave behind.  But if the total funds for screening in the system drop with the withdrawal of Komen Foundation support, they’ll be dead all the same.

Caveats, before I drop this “just the facts, Ma’am” tone:  this is a blunt, back of the envelope bit of arithmetic.  There are all kinds of factors that a real epidemiologist would consider before making any such bold claim.  Some of the obvious ones push the conclusion to a higher likely total of preventable deaths:  these women are being referred for screening, which suggests that someone had an inkling that they might be at risk.  Planned Parenthood sees a clientele that is likely to lack more health care services than the general population.  And there are the general points the original researchers made to suggest that the total of lives saved through screening would be greater than their baseline number.  There are probably factors that weigh in the other direction as well — one could imagine, for example, that the preliminary examinations turned up more aggressive cancers, which may have outcomes that mammographic detection does not much alter.  You get the point.  The reality of public health, medicine, and the basic biology of cancer is such that precise predictions are always wrong.

That said, the broader claim still stands:  there is a significant and growing body of evidence that regular mammographic breast cancer screening saves lives.  The converse follows:  withholding that screening means real people will suffer.

And here I’ll drop the pretense of dispassion.  The Komen Foundation’s decision links directly to illness, to death and loss and dreadful sorrow left behind.

Those losses can’t be called manslaughter either, not as I see it.  Preventable deaths that flow from lack of access to the standard of care are wholly predictable, even if the individual victims are not identifiable.  Those blocking access through want of funds know — or should — what will happen.  There’s nothing accidental about these outcomes.w

Which means that this isn’t just another salvo in the culture war.  This is nothing to be clever about in 850 word columns on the back pages of the Grey Lady.  This is not a bit of clever gamesmanship to rev up a base for whom just the name Planned Parenthood conjures up all their horrors of female agency.

This is real life, and real lives lost…and, once again, this is why this election matters so much.

*Yup.  Still working the refs for that Moore Award.

**Just to be clear:  for what follows, I’m assuming that these services are withdrawn, that the withholding of resources from the Komen Foundation doesn’t get made up somewhere else.

*** The spread is down to the details of data collection and analysis in the Swedish study.

****The weasel is about the difference in the five year span of screening Komen funds are said to cover, and the seven year screening sequence identified in the Swedish study.  I lack both the data and the skill to do more than waffle a bit here.

Image:  Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620

Another Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us…

January 5, 2012

….this, presented without further comment, via TPM:

Former New Life Church pastor and self-described “bisexual” Ted Haggard swapped wives with actor and self-described “church” Gary Busey for the ABC reality show Celebrity Wife Swap.



Speechless, me.

Really.  The Mayans might just have bee on to something. 2012 could be it for our species, or at least for any culture that could spawn Celebrity Wife Swap. (Which is, I suppose, perhaps the perfect habitat for the guests mentioned above.)

I say we throw in the trowel and await our Vogon overlords.

Image:  Lovis Corinth, In Max Halbes’ Garden, 1899


Ford’s Theater — or how not to photograph little girls.

January 6, 2011

This is a repost of something I put up at Balloon Juice last night–and that I then added to after reading the comment thread there this morning. Check that thread out here if you want to see the context for the second half of the piece.

Update:  I’ve attached a belated follow-up to the very thoughtful comment thread below the jump. Thanks to all who contributed to that thread, and apologies for taking this long before returning to the discussion.

Via my friend, science writer (The Carbon Age) and twitterer Eric Roston (@eroston) I just learned of the Tom Ford-edited issue of French Vogue featuring fashion-porn pictures of female child models.*

The girls are real children — one is said to be six years old — presented in the clothes, makeup and poses that suggest the sexual agency and availability of much older women.

Beyond a kind of weary sorrow/rage at the thought that someone’s going there yet again, the pictures crystallized for me the feeling that’s been taking shape all week as I’ve thought about Ross Douthat’s now well-covered foolishness in his recent column on adoption and abortion.

Lots of people (see my last post on this for a very partial selection of links) have pointed out the obvious about that piece. Recall that Douthat’s “argument” was that evil of abortion could be seen in the way it constrains the supply of  livestock babies sought by wealthy child-poor couples.  That’s a view that instrumentalizes both (poor) women and the children they are supposed to produce to satisfy that family-acquisition impulse.  The mothers and their infants become means to others’ ends.

Ford and Vogue make similar use of their subjects.  The girls, dressed and made-up in haute hooker chic, are toys — dolls, really — onto which a viewer is supposed to project … whatever.


Those photographs suggest erotic presence, but they depict kids, after all, and in these images, like the babies and women Douthat would bend to the service of other women, those children cease to be actual individuals.**  Instead, they become blank canvases on which others paint their own aims and desires, with the requisite ugly twist on the word, “desire.”

The bottom line?  To put it in the syntax of Jeopardy,  I’d ask:  “What is the fact that both Douthat and Ford/Vogue think it’s OK to diminish the people that are women and or children into anonymous, interchangeable objects”  And with that I’d win the category that answers:


Things that are not right.


I’ll close with a bit of science fiction geekery.  A long time ago I read what still seems to me one of the best of dystopic visions of our commodified and manipulated future, John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. It holds up remarkably well, and in my own idiosyncratic sequencing of such things, it seems to me that it should be thought of as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk.

Brunner’s story can be read as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which more than one character is coaxed to the realization that (in my bad, from-memory paraphrase of the book’s ending) the operational definition of the concept of evil was the use of another human being as a thing.

That notion is the source of my disgust with Douthat, and my loathing for whatever it was that passed for thought in Ford/Vogue‘s decision to peddle some kiddie porn.

And as for what I’d do about it?


This, of course.  I’m a free speech fundamentalist, or pretty close to it, and I believe that the best response to grotesque speech is to point out its wens and warts, which I have here tried to do.

And on that cheerful note…goodnight, y’all.  Better dreams.

*The link is to BoingBoing, through which you can dive as deep as the ‘net lets you now into this particular wading pool.

**In case it’s not obvious, can I say here that the issue is not with the idea of fashion photography and/or erotic tensions and meanings in images.  It’s the six year old problem: the fact that little kids do not possess the agency to figure out whether the process of being turned into any particular image is OK by and for them.  Clear?  (Obviously, there is a lot more to think and say here, but it’s late, and this is a blog post, not a monograph…and this is why we have comment threads.)

Image: Dirck van Baburen, The Procuress, 1622.

First — thanks to all.  I spat this out in haste last night, and it describes a reaction more felt than thought, and the comment thread offers the corrective I hoped it would to what I think is my incoherence.

Most important, I realize I didn’t think all the way through the argument.  I agree with those who’ve pointed out that Ford =/ Douthat, and for that matter, pictures of little girls in age-inappropriate costumes and poses =/ baby brokering.  If there is a link — and I think there is, still, it is that both Douthat’s writing and Ford’s images reduce women and girls to attributes.  But still, I think that what I was trying to say could have been better said with a focus on the Vogue spread itself.

There, as a number of commenters pointed out sexualized images of child models have a history (see e.g. Mike Kay at comment 15) — and as J. Michael Neal points out at number 5 and Debbie does at comment 55, Ford may very well be attempting critical comment on that history and on the habits of fashion photography.

But that still doesn’t resolve my sense of dread as I look at this pictures, and I think that reaction derives from two interwoven thoughts.  The first is that objects like these photos shape social relations.  I look at these photos and see this:  to be female, of any age, is to be an object, a vessel for other’s desires and intentions.  I recognize that there are other ways to interpret what’s going on here– but it is the kiddiness of the images that tip the balance for me.

The second is that context matters.  The spread’s presence in Vogue cuts both ways.  Given who reads that pre-eminent women’s book, the notion that this is criticism carries weight, as I’m not sure how much an audience of couture-fascinated women are going to see six year olds playing dress-up as objects of desire.  On the other hand – these kids are selling stuff, clothes and style, and it is the leap from stuff to selves that makes me very queasy.

I don’t know how many of you have read Andrew Vachss.  His novels – I’ve only read ones in the Burke series – center on horrific stories of child abuse and worse.  He emphasizes over and over again what should be obvious:  children don’t have agency when adults sexualize them.

That’s what makes me very, very wary of  even well made, ironic, fashion-tradition hedged images like the one’s here.

So, in response to all the well-thought criticism of what may be an unfair juxtaposition of Ford and Douthat, I think the commenters who point to the real differences between the two are onto something, and if I were to write this piece again, I’d focus just on what bothers me with these pictures, rather than trying to tease out this comparison.

I’m older than I once was, as Paul Simon says.  Fifty two and counting.  I have a young kid of my own.  I can imagine (though not really remember) myself as a twenty-something journalist in New York thinking that Ford’s images (Calvin Klein’s back then, actually) were pure transgressive art, full stop.  (I never bought into Douthat’s intellectual pathology, thank FSM.)  But I’m not that mostly notional young pup any more, and for all that I can see the artfulness in those photographs, I can’t get over my sense that these pictures help us make strangers of each other — and of the most vulnerable among us.

Correlation Ain’t Cause, but Mississippi’s Fear of Sex Has To Make You Go Hmmm.

July 16, 2010

I learn via the Maddowblog, (h/t Balloon Juice) that Mississipi Public Broadcasting got its knickers in a twist because one (count ’em — one) listener got the vapors over some mildly sexualized content on an episode of Terri Gross’s program, Fresh Air.  (Miss PB claims that a review of Gross’s show revealed a pattern of naughty bits. (h/t Gawker).

Balloon Juice’s Mr. Mix points out that Mississippi PB’s effective “zero tolerance” policy for mentions of sex on the radio adds up to  an essential omerta on matters lubricious, bouncy-bouncy, reproductive and all the rest.

That made me wonder.  What occurs in the context of such fear and trembling at the thought that humans have bodies and do things with them?

Well, I can’t say I was terribly surprised.  As of the latest statistics I could get my hands on quickly (Friday-afternoon-heading-for-a-BBQ blogging, you know), in 2007 Mississippi had the highest out-of-wedlock birthrate of all states, with such births accounting for 54% of the total.  As of 2006, Mississippi teens out-reproduced all their peers, boasting the top birthrate in the country for the 15-19 age group.  And as for the nasty problem referenced in this Sublime song…

…Mississippi maintains its leading position, coming in first in its incidence of chlamydia and gonorrhea, and eighth on the league tables for primary and secondary syphilis.

Now, as the title of this post ought to make clear, I’m not saying that a statewide choice to hold one’s hands over one’s ears and shout “I’m not listening!” — whenever discussion begins of sexual behavior, reproduction and contraception and all the rest sully the Magnolia State’s sensitive souls is — has any connection to the fact that so many more of its citizens than those of other states suffer the real human costs that come with unprotected and unconsidered sex.

But it sure is a coincidence, ain’t it?

Image: Anthony Van Dyck, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1639-40

Further Must Watch Video: No on 1 dept.

October 27, 2009

Getting my orders as usual from GOS, specifically Bill in Portland Maine, I follow BiPM’s link to this video:

I don’t think I need for this blog’s readership to talk  about the biology of sex and sexuality.  I don’t think I need talk about the dangers of simple minded appeals to what I think of as cottage evolutionary arguments (see this post by PZ Myers for a dissection of just such arguments.)  I don’t think that the folks who cluster around this little campfire need a lecture about the dangers of universalizing particular individual claims of religious belief or obligation.

But I do think it is important — surpassingly so — to articulate in as simple and as direct terms as possible why same-sex marriage matters to the entire American polity.  That is because if the idea of inalienable rights has any meaning, rights must be rights. Which is what Paul Roeddicker is saying above.

No on 1.


“What Do You Think I Fought For At Omaha Beach”: No on 1 in Maine

October 20, 2009

Nothing to add to this.  The man says it all:

(h/t DougJ over at Balloon Juice.)

In which I Godwinize myself: Prop. Eight: Vote No…

November 1, 2008

Another unsought endorsement .

But even if it is or ought to be obvious where this blog and blogger stand on California’s Prop 8 and marriage equality (and civil rights universality in general), it bears witnessing in public.

Many others over much longer periods of time have made the case for marriage equality and for the defeat of the California initiative attempt to roll back that state’s recent championing of the, to-me obvious, recognition of the ethical imperative involved.

Here I’m going to offer no particular science — no arguing about the evolutionary genetics of homosexuality; no reference back to animal studies of sexual preference and behavior — no personal connections either, like the memory of the bar mitzvah I attended last year of the wonderful son of my closest married gay friends, none of that.

Rather, I’m just going to tell an anecdote:

When I was working on my book about Einstein, I borrowed a friend’s apartment near Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.  The U-bahn stop next to the plaza is an elevated one, with an arch piercing the track right-of-way to serve as the street underpass.  On the left hand limb of the arch there was a small plaque, topped by a triangle made of pinkish cut stone.

The explanatory inscription reads, in translation, “This memorial plaque at Metro-station Nollendorfplatz in Berlin-Schöneberg is to commemorate the Pink triangle. It was one of the Nazi concentration camp badges, used by the German Nazis to identify male prisoners in concentration camps who were sent there because of their homosexuality.”

It is the most modest memorial I have ever seen, demure, almost embarrassed to remind passers-by of the particular viciousness which it seeks to preserve in historical recollection.

The Nollendorfplatz station is a minor one in the Berlin system.  Not that many people climb the stairs just to the side of the plaque.  It is just there, waiting to be noticed.

And when you do — when I did on a grey February morning hurrying off to trace the progress of National Socialism in the newspapers housed in the state archives — the question of marriage equality, of full civil rights and social unconcern* for same-sex couples becomes extraordinarily uncomplicated.

When you can’t count Adolf Hitler as your enemy, you count me as your friend.

There is no real argument that needs to be made, I think, or rather, the implications of the Nazi search for markers through which to define people as less than human make an overwhelming argument for marriage equality, for social and legal indifference to sexual preference in general:

If we do not accept that human beings living their humanity must be equal in the eyes of the law and the state we open the door for all kinds of inhumanity, as Nollendorfplatz oh-so-gently reminds us.

I grew up in California; I wish I lived there now, just so I could vote against Prop. 8.  If you have that opportunity, seize it.

Update: minor corrections to fix the inevitable by-products of late-night, post canvassing blogging.

Image:  Michael F. Mehnert, Nollendorfplatz memorial, 2006.  Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.

Sneaky F*ckers and a momentary break from politics.

September 15, 2008

Update: One word, but it’s a crucial one, changed below.  For “Keynes,” read “Smith.”  My thanks to commenter Bob Bleakney for the sharp eyes that caught what this addled brain did not.  Apologies for the unfortunate mental images…; )

I don’t know about you, but I need ever more breaks from the continuous experience of staring into the abyss of the worst of American politics, so I read with pleasure this short post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog that marked a momentary digression from Sullivan’s near-total (and entirely laudable) focus on defeating the McCain-Palin freak show.  In it he reports on Jesse Bering’s retelling of John Maynard Keynes Smith sneaky fucker theory as applied to human reproduction.

It brought back happy memories of the time in the late 1980s I spent researching a potential NOVA documentary on the distinction in practice and in evolutionary history between sexual reproduction and sexuality.  That project took me to the University of Texas laboratory of Professor David Crews.

Crews is best known for his study of the so-called “lesbian lizards,” Cnemidophorus uniparens, which is an all female species of lizards who reproduce parthenogenetically — ie, through the development of unfertilized eggs that have full complement of chromosomes.  The twist in the tale is that C. uniparens is descended from a sexually reproducing species in which both of the usual genders take their customary part in the reproductive cycle.  When the mutation occured that enabled parthenogenetic reproduction (aka virgin births) the now all female, all sister lizards retained at least some of the behavior of their ancestral species.  So the lizards still perform what look like gender-specific practices, including mounting, even though there is, strictly speaking, no reproductive purpose for such behavior.  Cool movie here.

That was fascinating enough — but Crews didn’t stop the tour of his lab with his lizards.  Next up were  the cages of garter snakes.

It seems that among red-sided garter snakes, a few males have managed not only to achieve a physical mimicry of females, but physiological imitation as well, excreting a female sex hormone.  This has two effects observed in behavior:

1.  The garter snakes attract (distract) male snakes — Crews’ lab observed mating attempts involving 5-17 males at a time.
2.  With the competition thus distracted, these nellie (if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphization) snakes did very well for themselves in the mating game.  Crews and his colleagues reported that  “she-males mated with females significantly more often than did normal males, demonstrating not only reproductive competence but also a possible selective advantage to males with this female-like pheromone.”

You can find the abstract of a 1985 Nature paper reporting on the snakes here.  Fun movie of these wily characters here.

As Crews and I talked in his lab that day, he called his female-imitating garter snakes sneaky fuckers — with affection, or at least admiration for some clever evolutionary gamestering.  That was the first time I had heard the term, and it still brings a smile to my face, remembering Crews’ image of a wily femme snake deceiving his macho brothers to reach his desired goal.

I’m not sure how far I’d go to making the analogy between snakes and people — not very far in fact.  But the underlying idea is probably useful:  sexual behavior evolved for reasons and under selection pressure that was at least partly distinct from that which produced the physiology of sexual reproduction.  It is therefore unsurprising that a wide range of possible behavior remains part of our sexual landscape.

Image:  Michelangelo, “Forbidden Fruit and the Expulsion from Eden,” fresco from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1509.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

And of course, gin remains a great leveler.