Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Minor Goddess Thoughts: Post 2. On Sex Work and Gender

Melissa Gira Grant has written a book about prostitution (Playing the Whore), and Katha Pollitt writes about the book in her fairly recent column.  I have not read Grant's book yet, but I'm aware of the furious nature of most debates when it comes to sex work.  (This piece gives a flavor of Grant's arguments.  Pollitt's review offers some of the opposing arguments.)

This fury may be because data is hard to get on some aspects of prostitution, such as the demand side (the "johns") and also because data about trafficking and exploitation is, almost by definition, also difficult to obtain or interpret.  That leaves the debate wide open to individual views.  Those, in turn, depend on the individuals and their places in the hierarchies of the sex work marketplace.  Questions of "choice" and "agency" and such abound, but it's hard to get solid numerical data on the characteristics of mostly illegal markets.

So the debate is all over the place.  On one extreme endpoint,  sex workers are seen as women (mostly women) who were abused as children and never had a chance, who were possibly trafficked as sex-slaves or trapped as teenagers in the streets,  who are addicted to illegal drugs, who are exploited by pimps and who are essentially powerless to stop any of it.

The other extreme endpoint argues that there's nothing more exploitative about sex work than about, say, washing the bottoms of the elderly in a nursing home, that sex work is no different from any other poorly paid and exploitative occupation, such as flipping burgers, washing floors or serving customers at a Hooters bar.  According to this view, choosing sex work is a rational choice, especially for those whose other options are all linked to basic survival, and choosing sex work in the higher-paid part of the market is also a rational choice, because of the pay and the freedom the work offers.

Minor Goddess Thoughts. Post 1: The Confidence Gap Between Men And Women

I'm trying to create a series of small-to-medium thoughts, as a way to spring-clean some of the junk that hangs around in my brain.  This one is about all the recent conversations on how men have more self-confidence and how women need to get more of it and not be so focused on perfection.

The recent conversations are because a new book is out on the topic.  A flavor can be obtained from this Atlantic Monthly article by the authors. It puts together a lot of studies which show that men have more confidence in their abilities, even unwarranted confidence, and then speculates about the possible reasons for this confidence gap, all the way from testosterone to early childhood upbringing.

Because this post is only a minor goddess thought, I haven't gone through the studies or thought about why evolution would benefit from a confidence gap of that sort (though I did have time to wonder if the studies all use American data, and if so, whether the confidence gap might be cultural).

Instead, I wish to draw attention to this weird argument chain:

Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. They aren’t consciously trying to fool anyone. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence. In a study he published in 2011, men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.

We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense. He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business.

The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence. In 2009, he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of 242 students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.

Among the names were some well-disguised fakes: a Queen Shaddock made an appearance, as did a Galileo Lovano, and an event dubbed Murphy’s Last Ride. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. At the end of the semester, Anderson asked the students to rate one another in a survey designed to assess each individual’s prominence within the group. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status.

Here's the way I understand that long quote (sorry about the length):  Men can be too confident but because they are too confident honestly, it's all good.  Indeed, overconfidence gives social rewards!

Well, perhaps in studies which employ very young undergraduates as their subjects.  But I think most people learn about this thing called overconfidence when they get to know more and more people, and most people then calibrate down their expectations when they come across a very boastful person.

I may be mistaken about how general such corrections are, but I certainly carry them out frequently.  In short, overconfidence (false though honestly felt confidence) should not benefit people in the long-run if the reward systems are based on any kind of rationality, because overconfidence doesn't signal anything real.

This doesn't mean that lack of confidence wouldn't be undesirable, especially in those who actually have a lot to be confident about.  Neither does it mean that there wouldn't be a gender difference in the amount of confidence men and women express, on average, and in the US, at least.  Still, I find it fascinating how the natural lens in these kinds of articles is to assume that the problem is solely in how women are, so that the solution is change the way women are.  Perhaps judging workers and students on objective criteria might be better?

Then there are my personal experiences (you can add yours in the comments):  During my life I have been questioned about any expertise I have often enough that I have spotted the pattern in that questioning.  It's as if I need to prove myself over and over again.  Certificates and degrees are not sufficient. 

If such questioning is more common about women than about men, then some of the confidence gap may be created by the very fact that women meet more doubt.  At least such questioning may make some women very careful about what they say or double-check everything before saying it.

Add to that the traditional gender role ideas about women.  In many cultures those strongly discourage women from blowing their own trumpets, and if a woman does pick up a trumpet, the outcome might not be the same as a confident male trumpeter receives.  Because she has violated role expectations she are more likely to  get not only accolades but also a reputation as an uppity bitch.

The best remedy for the problem of too little deserved confidence is to see what else gets touted in your field, which types of people and what type of work get promoted and what ultimately successful people do when they first fail.  And no, you certainly don't need to be perfect.  Even minor goddesses aren't.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cardinal Dolan on the Availability of Birth Control

This is from the know-nothing-but-priestsplain-files, and that's what makes it both funny and very sad.  Cardinal Dolan was defending the Hobby Lobby side of the birth control debate and stated this:

When asked whether allowing for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby to claim religious liberty could set a “dangerous precedent” for the rest of the country, Dolan deferred, claiming it’s not a problem because birth control is already widely accessible.
“Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?” Dolan said in an exchange uploaded by Raw Story. “I don’t think so. I hope the Supreme Court agrees.”

Why it's hilarious is pretty obvious.  Either cardinal Dolan thinks of condoms when he talks about "birth control", or he thinks that the pill indeed is available in 7-11 stores. Then there's that bit about mentioning the divinity's name in vain.

More seriously, though this is not the clearest example of the trend of know-nothing-is-OK-when-we're-about-controlling-women's-fertility it's part of that same trend.  For example, post-menopausal women don't need gyno services, according to some, women have a little switch that turns off when they are "legitimately" raped so that no child is conceived and so on.

I don't know about you but I think it's a good idea to know the area in which one wants to legislate behavior before spouting about it.

The Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

Perhaps as many as 234 schoolgirls in Nigeria were recently kidnapped by Boko Haram:

The kidnappings are believed to have been carried out by Nigeria's extremist rebels, known as Boko Haram. Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sinful" — is violently campaigning to establish an Islamic Shariah state in Nigeria, whose 170 million people are about half Muslim and half Christian.
Boko Haram has been abducting some girls and young women in attacks on schools, villages and towns but last week's mass kidnapping is unprecedented. The extremists use the young women as porters, cooks and sex slaves, according to Nigerian officials.

Some of girls managed to escape, but most are still missing.  Let us hope all them will be found soon and in good health.

Boko Haram bases its terrorism on religion.  This article argues that it has shifted its policies to the question of gender during the last year or so.   But in any case, the goal of establishing Shariah law is linked with the goal of limiting girls' and women's choices.

Boko Haram has killed its male prisoners in the past but spared its female prisoners:

Part of the reason the military is loath to respond mightily may be because the girls who are kidnapped are raped, forced into servitude -- but rarely killed.
In February, 29 college students in the northern Yobe province were killed after an attack authorities blamed on Boko Haram. All of them were males. The women were spared.
In other instances, kidnapped girls were later rescued while working on farms. Many were pregnant or had babies -- the result of rape.
These choices may reflect Boko Haram's ideas of chivalry (though not kidnapping women and girls in the first place would seem more in tune with the idea of war being men's business), but they may also reflect the way gendered violence is used in warlike circumstances.  One leaves the women alive but impregnated by the enemy.  That way the women are viewed as "spoiled" and their children as belonging to the enemy.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Meanwhile, in the World of Comics: Power Tits And Digital Sexual Harassment of Women.

Janelle Asselin, who has edited lots of comic books, writes an article criticizing this comic book cover:

She notes:

Let's start with the elephant in the room: Wonder Girl's rack. Perhaps I'm alone in having an issue with an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head (seriously, line that stuff up, each breast is the same size as her face) popping out of her top. Anatomy-wise, there are other issues -- her thigh is bigger around than her waist, for one -- but let's be real. The worst part of this image, by far, are her breasts. The problem is not that she's a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don't have that round shape (sorry, boys). If you don't believe me, check out this excellent tutorial from artist Meghan Hetrick.

And what happens next?  Debate about her criticisms, sure.  But also:

We all knew this would happen. As Asselin explains on her blog: “I was called a whiny bitch, a feminazi, a feminist bitch, a bitter cunt, and then the rape threats started rolling in.”

Those who do that are not the majority of people or the majority of men or boys, either.  But even if they are a fairly small percentage, when everyone in that group aims their vitriol at the same writer at the same time that impact is considerable.   It's like an extra fee one has to pay if one is to write about certain topics.  Or write as a woman on almost any topic.  And the abuse can be much worse for women of color who get smelly packages which combine misogyny with racism.

Tauriq Moosa makes a good point about what we can all do to affect this:

Yet you should recognize the digital harassment environment of women is one that is maintained through its consistency and unrelenting nature. Similarly, so should the response: unrelenting, shouted from the highest and most respectable platforms and people. What you should want to create is a culture or community that immediately does not tolerate bigotry, harassment, and abuse.
As many, including Asselin, note, a powerful reason some men feel no hesitation when sending horrible messages to women is they believe they’re operating within a space that accepts it as the norm. But you should not have “acceptance” fed by feelings of futility; your response should be intolerance of intolerance. Silence and apathy are key ingredients to a tasty helping of bigotry. Though only specific groups are served, everyone in the community must endure the smell. And smell and taste are not so different.

What about the original Asselin piece and the points it makes?  I'm not a comics reader but she is certainly correct when she states that natural breasts are not that particular shape but pear-shaped. Wonder Girl wears very large implants.

Whether something like that matters when we are talking about drawn characters of something called superheroes is an interesting question.  The answer depends on who it is that is the intended reader of the comic book and what that person wishes to see in it.   It also depends on what a female superhero is expected to embody.  Finally, it depends very much on whose cheese it is that is imagines as pulled away, whose comic books someone is trying to change and whose "entitlements" are threatened.

My guess is that the incoherence of the misogynistic anger comes from those perceived threats.  Or, rather, the vitriol expresses those underlying fears.

Noblesse Oblige. Or One Of The Consequences of One-Dollar-One-Vote in American Politics

Given the Supreme Court Republican majority views on democracy and free speech, the way politics and various institutions will be financed and molded is going to increasingly depend on the small percentage of people who have a lot of money.

Thus, one might argue that president Obama was very smart to invite the philanthropically-minded young billionaires to the White House.* After all, the Democratic party should court them before the Republican party does, right?

On the other hand, wasn't all this supposed to be something that happened during the Robber Barons era of the American history?  Wasn't the idea that more people should have a say in how those institutions are created and how politics is run?  As Digby writes:

It's very nice that many of these young idealistic aristocrats want to do good deeds. But this is really nothing more than good old fashioned noblesse oblige which basically leaves the betterment of man to the whims of rich people. One of the big improvements democracy was supposed to bring was that the people themselves decided how to organize society rather than depending on the kindness of aristocrats. Even great philanthropists of the gilded age like Andrew Carnegie believed in a huge confiscatory tax of great estates in order that the government of the people might make the decisions rather than the heirs of great fortunes.
*The story appeared in the Style and Fashion section.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Meanwhile, in Russia. Extreme Sexism in a Politician's Speech

On the one hand this man, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is viewed as the right-wing clown of Russian politics, on the other hand he also happens to have power.  See what he says to a female journalist.

It's like a volcanic eruption of most of the nasty memes about women:  Pregnant women shouldn't be at press conferences, women's libidos (the "beasts" between women's legs) drive them to say stupid stuff with their "dumb bitch" mouths.  Indeed, such women should be raped hard, and any woman who defends other women is a lesbian (meant as a slur).

A rather nasty blob of primeval slime, this Mr. Zhirinovsky.

The good news is that the Duma's ethics committee has promised to look into this speech.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Egypt Cool With Divorce? What Do The Findings of The Pew Global Attitudes Survey Really Mean?

The Pew Global Attitudes project has a survey of eight "hot-button" issues, to see how the values associated with them vary in prevalence across countries.  The new site has a quick summary of the findings.  The headline states:

France likes cheating, Egypt is cool with divorce, and other things the world believes about sex and marriage

It's the bit about Egypt being cool with divorce that is worth looking into a bit more, because the overall tone of the piece suggests that it's surprising how OK Egyptians are with divorce. Later the story states:
Divorce is slightly less polarized, with disapproval concentrated in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia (and Bolivia, for whatever reason). Egypt stands out compared to other Muslim countries, especially nearby Tunisia; in Tunisia, about 55 percent of respondents giving an answer disapproved of divorce, compared to only 8 percent of Egyptians giving an answer.

I'm confused about those numbers, by the way, because the chart at the source reads to me as if 46% of Tunisians regard divorce as unacceptable while 7% of Egyptians do, but perhaps the different data comes from more detailed parts of the report.

Never mind, what's important about that link to the chart is the tiny writing on the left about the context:

Even in several socially conservative Middle Eastern nations, relatively few consider divorce unacceptable, including around 10% or fewer in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

And that's why I write about all this, and especially to the comparison with Tunisia.  Tunisia has a divorce law which is almost gender-equal, whereas Egypt does not.  Likewise, divorce in Islam has very particular features and is based on religious interpretations as something allowed to men in much wider circumstances than it is allowed to women.  As far as I can tell, divorce in Jordan, for example, is based on the Islamic sharia law.

The flavor of the interpretation of Egyptians as somehow cool with divorce as a sign of something one wouldn't expect from that country, given its socially conservative culture, is misplaced, because a certain type of divorce IS part of that socially conservative religious tradition.  But it's not a gender-equal type of divorce, and finding it acceptable doesn't measure liberal values.

Hillary Clinton, a Grandmother-To-Be! Will She Now Not Run For President?

This is a silly post, suitable for a Friday.  USAToday wrote about the pregnancy of Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton:

Former president Bill Clinton and his wife have made no secret of their wish for a grandchild. It's unclear how Chelsea's pregnancy will affect Hillary Clinton, who is considering a race for president in 2016.
At the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, Bill Clinton told that audience, "I would like to have a happy wife, and she won't be unless she's a grandmother. It's something she wants more than she wanted to be president."

Being a grandfather doesn't seem to have affected past presidents, in terms of their professional ambitions, but in the case of a female politician, the effects of impending "grandmotherhood" are "unclear." 

Even though all this is silly (and naturally congratulations are due to all concerned!), it's worth pointing out that those silly statements have their roots in gendered ideas.  For instance, being a mother is seen more clearly as both a relationship AND a job than being a father, and some of that attaches itself to the perceived difference between grandmothers and grandfathers, too.  Perhaps USAToday imagines that Hillary Clinton will now want to do more babysitting than presidenting?

Then there's the idea that because Bill Clinton once said that his wife wants to be a grandmother more than she wanted to be president she might now be happy and satisfied and no longer interested in running for the president of the USA. That either-or thinking is not used for male politicians who can be both fathers and presidents and grandfathers and presidents.  Indeed, those who don't have any offspring or offspring of their offspring are regarded with slight suspicion.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Speed-Blogging on Purgatory Thursday, 2014: On CEO Pay, The Two Countries of the USA and The Plight of Black Girls

Purgatory Thursday is my translation of the Finnish name for this day in the Christian calendar (kiirastorstai).  I like the mouth feeling of the term.

What to read today, to go with the tone I set above?  How about executive compensations?

The Times reported that the median compensation for C.E.O.’s in 2013 was $13.9 million, a 9 percent increase from 2012. The Wall Street Journal, which did its own, smaller survey a few weeks earlier, described the 2013 pay increases as representing “moderate growth.”
Find out what the average growth rate in the US workers' wage packet is and then compare the two.  It's a lot better to be a CEO than the average worker, and the term "moderate growth" has a different meaning for the two groups.

Here's a fun picture of the executive compensations of non-profit leaders, separated by gender.  You can move your cursor over the dots and find out more about the people.  The blue dots are guys, the yellow dots are gals.

Talking of graphs and such, it's worth noting that the southern states in the US differ from the northern states along many social and economic variables.  These comparisons show a few of them.

The differences are partly due to history (and even earlier due to climate), but it's certainly worth asking how that pattern correlates with various states' political leanings.

Finally, do read this Salon post by Brittney Cooper about black girls.  She describes the impact of growing up in circumstances which may leave the same markings on children as growing up in war zones does and makes an important point about the societal invisibility of the suffering she describes:

What threads these women’s lives together is the collective lack of national care for their stories. Black women have been passing these narratives around the blogosphere and social media to each other, posting collective laments, and wondering if anyone else cares. These stories are not national news to anybody else, but they are national news to us.
We must do better.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On the WSJDLive Sausage Fest

Where The Digital World Connects.  That's the blurb for the WSJDLive conference, to be held next October.  Want to learn more about the conference?

At WSJDLive, leaders from both established and emerging tech companies will explore the most compelling tech opportunities evolving around the world. Through dynamic on-stage interviews, intimate roundtables with experts on cutting-edge topics, and interactive events, WSJDLive participants will connect with peers in an environment of unparalleled discussion, debate and global discovery.

Want to learn even more?  Here are the speakers.  They show some racial and ethnic diversity and there's variations in eyeglasses and hair color.  On the other hand, all the speakers are men.

My Twitter feed has lots of funny stuff about that last bit.  But the problem is a bit deeper than just the Wall Street Journal's usual preference to have sausage fests (as some called this) or their blindness to the fact that they are having one, again, and the problem is that most of those men are CEOs.  Capitalists, if you wish.  And women are scarce among the CEOs.

This doesn't mean that I'm defending the speaker selection process, and it doesn't mean that the conference couldn't find any female CEOs with the relevant experience.  Neither does it mean that conferences focusing on CEOs are necessarily the best idea to talk about how the digital world connects.

But it's important to note that inequalities of various types are not just interpersonal or perception dilemmas, amenable to simple solutions, such as reminding conference builders of the importance not to have gender or race blinders attached to their eyeglass frames.  Those reminders are not useless (and can be important as a way of opening the initial gates), but as long as the underlying structural problems remain, we need to put more effort into solving those structural problems.

Put in a different way, the problem here is twofold:  First the absence of female speakers in the conference, and, second, the absence of women among the relevant group of CEOs.  To ask for just more female speakers doesn't fix the second part.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Continuing Pregnancy Can Be A Crime For Users Of Illegal Drugs

Tennessee is going to make pregnancy into a potential criminal offense for women who are using illegal drugs:

The state legislature has passed a bill that would allow police to investigate drug-taking mothers if their unborn children are harmed by their addiction.
Tennessee may become the first state with a law that could criminally prosecute pregnant women if they harm their unborn children by taking illegal drugs. Miscarriages, stillbirths, and infants born with birth defects would be grounds for police investigation and charges that could put the mother behind bars for up to 15 years.
Last week, the proposed legislation to allow for criminal assault charges to be brought against drug-addicted pregnant women overwhelmingly passed the Tennessee Senate with bipartisan support after already sailing through the House. The bill states that “nothing shall preclude prosecution of a woman for an assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.”
Now think about that for a while.  What's the best thing* for a women addicted to illegal drugs to do should she get pregnant, if she wants to avoid the chance of such investigations?

Yup, you got it.  She should get an abortion.  But because all this comes from the same ideological roots as the desire to ban all abortions, the forced-birthers have turned themselves into pretzels:**

Weaver and the bill’s other supporters feel that the Safe Harbor Act did not go far enough in reducing rates of babies born with NAS or punishing pregnant drug abusers. “Here’s the double standard. If I hit a lady who’s pregnant and they’re both [mother and fetus] killed, that’s two counts of homicide. But a woman who is pregnant can stab herself in the stomach and hurt her baby and not be charged with anything,” says Weaver. “It [the Safe Harbor Act] made a woman who was pregnant above the law.”
Those "two counts of homicide" are because people who have Weaver's opinions supported laws which define the death of a fetus as a homicide.  So Weaver is arguing against herself, in a fashion.

All these initiatives come from the desire to define personhood as beginning from conception (as long as it's not in a test tube but in a uterus).  That defining personhood this way reduces the personhood of the person whose uterus it is doesn't matter.  Women addicted to illegal drugs are seen as criminals, women injecting themselves in their own stomachs are viewed as potential killers of the real person inside them, and women giving birth to a child with birth defects could then be put behind bars for up to fifteen years, even if the birth defects had nothing to do with any drug use, and even if imprisoning the mother that way could be in the worst interest of the child.
*Those who participate in drug treatment programs will not be charged, according to the bill.  But such treatments may not be available for all affected women, especially those in rural areas.
**NAS stands for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. As far as I can tell, its effects are temporary and treatable.