“Powerful … constructively controversial.” - Telegraph
“As entertaining as it is erudite.” - Observer
“Ambitious, meticulously researched and passionate.” - Independent
"Impeccably well-researched" - Huffington Post
"I disagree with just about everything she has to say" - Julie Bindel

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Links Roundup: 30 November

Newsweek's cover story on "sex addiction" gets a once-over by psychologist David Ley.
What cultural forces are bringing this to the fore right now?

I think it’s a perfect storm. It’s the media and the transparency of our society. All of these behaviors have been happening for millennium — people cheating, people having lots of sex, people viewing pornography. There’s nothing new about this. But all of a sudden we have this 24/7 media that is hungry for scandals. “Gotcha” journalism grabs an audience by putting out a sound bite, a meme, as quickly as possible, regardless of how true it is. The memes that grab the most are black-and-white, two-dimensional concepts. Rather than explaining that there are thousands of reasons a person might engage in infidelity, it’s easier to say: Sex addict.

A new study on migration and trafficking in the UK sex industry finds immigration and employment law, not trafficking, is the main factor in people staying in sex work.

Most migrants did not work in the sex industry before coming to the UK and decided to do so after a long string of work experiences in other sectors, which were seen as comparatively less rewarding both in terms of remuneration and of the working conditions offered. The majority of interviewees were introduced to the possibility of working in the sex industry through friends and colleagues they met in other settings and decided to take up the opportunity after they saw positive examples in their everyday lives, both when they were home and in the country of origin.

New study suggests men probably don't think about sex every few seconds. Surprise, surprise.

Overall, erotophilia was a better predictor of sexual cognition than was sex of participant. Taken as a whole, the results suggest that, although there may be a sex difference in sexual cognitions, it is smaller than is generally thought, and the reporting is likely influenced by sex role expectations.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Links roundup: 14 November

Interesting thoughts on whether sexting criminalises teenagers, and a case of a 17-year-old put on the Sex Offenders Register for possessing 'sexted' photos of people his age (including pictures of himself)

There’s the issue that often there is no clear distinction (in charging) between someone of the age of 17 possessing sexualised images of similar ages and a 50 year old man possessing images of the most horrible content imaginable involving very young children. It may reflect in the sentencing but ultimately the wording of the charges (Making/Possessing an indecent image of a child) may end up being the same with both persons being placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register. It also poses the question of how can it be, indeed if it should be, made clear that there is a difference between a 50 year old man in possession of 50,000 images of under 13 year olds and Peter possessing 500 images of 15-17 year olds when he was 16-17 himself?

Superb stuff from Furrygirl on parallels between the crack 'epidemic' and recent stories about sex trafficking

The crack "epidemic" was framed by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum as not a symptom of poverty, inequality, and larger social disparities, but as the cause of social problems in the first place ... Sex trafficking is also seen not as a response to social forces such as some countries having more wealth than others, the desire to go abroad to earn better money, few employment options for undocumented migrant workers, or the difficulties in legally entering a Western country if you're poor. No, sex trafficking is the social ill to be eliminated, and all that complex stuff about class, race, immigration, and gender gets neatly swept under the rug in favor of an explanation that lets people scapegoat manufactured omnipresent boogeymen while failing to address real social problems.

SF Weekly on the cold shoulder received by researchers discovering New York City teen sex workers are not predominantly girls and not predominantly controlled by pimps

Through interviews and analysis of public records, Village Voice Media has found that the federal government spends about $20 million a year on public awareness, victims' services and police work related to domestic human trafficking, with a considerable focus on combating the pimping of children. An additional $50 million-plus is spent annually on youth homeless shelters, and since 1996 taxpayers have contributed a total of $186 million to fund a separate program that provides street outreach to kids who may be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.

That's at least $80 million doled out annually for law enforcement and social services that combine to rescue approximately 200 child prostitutes every year.

These agencies might improve upon their $400,000-per-rescued-child average if they joined in the effort to develop a clearer picture of the population they aim to aid. But there's no incentive for them to do so when they stand to rake in even more public money simply by staying the course.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Yaeba teeth and the sexual idealisation of youth

In the last couple of days, stories have appeared in the press about dentists in Japan who, in a bid to attract business, are offering cosmetic procedures that simulate yaeba, or "double teeth". This is because among many people in Japan, it is considered attractive - especially in women - to have uneven teeth.

Rather astoundingly the preference for not-straight teeth has been speciously interpreted by no less than Jezebel and the Daily Wail as a desire to achieve a "sexy" "child-like" look. I scoffed when I read this choice quote:

Pace University's Dr Emilie Zaslow, assistant professor of communication studies, told the newspaper: 'The naturally occurring yaeba is because of delayed baby teeth, or a mouth that’s too small.

'It’s this kind of emphasis on youth and the sexualization of young girls.'
Because, of course, an assistant professor of a communication studies in an obscure college is a great source of knowledge on some, any, or all of the following: dentistry, biology, Japanese culture, sexuality? Erm, sounds a bit dodgy to me. Sounds like someone maybe has a piece of unsubstantiated research (perhaps based on the in-depth data collection method of having seen a Facebook group or two) and they've elected to promote it by press release rather than peer review.

True, people in Japan like crooked teeth. Drawing the line from that to, uh, sexy kids? Moral panic much? Sadly the response has been uncritical of an interpretation that fails on virtually every logic applied to it. Having brought up the topic on Twitter (and my general astounded-ness that anyone took this conclusion seriously at all), I found that it's being waved and nodded through the usual checks and passing straight into sexualisation lore.

What interests me is not teeth as such but rather the way in which something once stated, with very little reasoned thought, becomes seized upon as if it is important, revealing, and (perhaps most crucially) kinky. How teeth become some kind of evidence for a shaky notion of men, women, and sexuality that is spinning far out of control.

So for those who are interested, here is why that shock-horror interpretation of this utterly unremarkable story is so, so, so wrong:

1. There is no biological connection between yaeba-type teeth and childhood.

My first degree was in biological anthropology, and as a PhD student, I was especially interested in identification of human skeletal remains. This is a long-winded way of saying that I have looked at teeth, lots of teeth, for years. And can state with some confidence that there is no biological connection between yaeba-type teeth and someone being, or appearing to be, underage.

Crooked teeth, and in particular the prominent canines associated with yaeba, are almost certainly a signal of being post-puberty. After all you must have most or all of your adult teeth in for them to be so crowded. The last deciduous tooth is lost about age 11 or 12, the second molars come in around ages 14-16, and the third molars - your wisdom teeth - rather later, at about the mid 20s. For some people this timeline is even longer: at 36, my third molars are only now starting to erupt, which is making my teeth even more crowded than before. These changes cause the teeth already in your mouth to shift position, and is the reason we don't put braces on little kids.

Just for comparison's sake, here's a photo of yaeba teeth, and the teeth of a child. As you can see the difference between normal deciduous teeth and crooked adult ones is pretty obvious.

(Those are my teeth in the first photo, by the way. They've been much commented upon whenever I appear on telly. For the record I think straightened teeth look like dentures and wouldn't change a thing about mine.)

Simply by considering the pattern and timing of tooth eruption, we can see that yaeba is necessarily a feature of people in their teen years or later, and therefore the theory that it is related to finding children sexually attractive is not supported.

I first heard of yaeba a few years ago. My initial thought on why someone might find it attractive was because of the significant sexual dimorphism of the human skull. Certain features of adult women are so unlike men's, they can be used with reasonable certainty to determine the sex of the individual. The shape and size of jaws is one such feature. In people of Asian ancestry this tendency for women to have gracile features is especially pronounced. As you can imagine, if you have a small jaw as an adult, your teeth have less chance of erupting in a straight line. So it might be the case that crowded permanent teeth accentuate feminine and delicate features of adult women.

So the people attributing this preference to suppressed paedo desires might actually consider that there is a reasonable explanation why men could like crowded teeth on grownup women when you consider the phenomenon from the sexual selection angle. And that if that is the case, this is not something that is down to culture, conditioning, padded bras for 10-year-olds, or any of that rubbish. (Of course, it's just a theory. So I won't exactly be getting on the phone to the New York Times as if it were fact.)

2. The idea relies on a considerable stereotyping of Japanese culture in the West as aberrant and sexually deviant.

I've never lived in Japan and never been especially interested in the country. However, when I started dating my now-husband in 2008, he had just moved back from living in Tokyo. What was one of the first things he commented on about my appearance? My teeth. This was when I first heard about yaeba.

The preference in Japan for slightly uneven, natural-looking teeth has been going on for a long time. Cosmetic orthodontics are only a recent import there and still rather rare compared to the homogeneously artificial look preferred in the US (and, increasingly, in the UK too). So connecting yaeba to any imagined recent trends in sexual idealisation of childlike appearance is clearly incorrect.

But more interestingly the story seems to have found an audience because what little is reported in the West about Japan is almost exclusively focused on sex, crime, and sex crimes. In spite of the fact that Tokyo is an exceedingly safe city, the horrible murders of Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker have left a deep impression of a nationwide deviancy that nothing else is able to balance. Combined with the usual other stories about Japanese culture that seem to focus exclusively on manga, a very negative picture emerges.

Their culture is foreign to us. So is ours to them. Characterising an entire nation as obsessed with childlike sexuality based on, what exactly? Sailor Moon cosplay? Weaksauce cultural stereotyping at its best. You might as well go whole hog and call them "inscrutable" or "a cruel race". Get a grip, people.

3. The people pushing the infantilisation/sexualisation agenda are desperate for any evidence to back up their increasingly panicked, and increasingly unsupported, claims.

So I guess if that's your agenda, it's totally okay to not even do some basic information-gathering about human biology. And it's also totally okay to stereotype a bunch of people whose culture you never seriously engage with. They probably don't read Jezebel anyway, amirite?

I've written before on the lack of reliable data in the sexualisation debate; it's a maelstrom of thin evidence being trumped up with illogical assumptions to produce staggeringly shaky results. This is one more example of that craze. The assumptions surrounding yaeba are simply conforming to a view of sexuality (and specifically, heterosexual men's sexual preferences) that demonises groups of people for things that turn out not to be true.

The biggest offender in this area is just about any discussion ever relating to (women's) pubic hair and the removal thereof. Sometimes a denuded vulva is just a cigar, you know? But similarly uninformed discussions take place endlessly about people who prefer small breasts to large ones, or slim bodies to heavier ones, or blondes to brunettes. Considering all of the mixed messages being transmitted as re: supposed sexual authenticity, nobody gets a free ride, ever. Stay the way you are? Judged as wrong. Change the way you look? Judged as wrong. You can't please all of the people all the time, and increasingly, none of the people any of the time.

Unfortunately, the only thing about this story that is interesting - the fact that in Japan, their idea of what a beautiful woman looks like is a bit different to our ideal, and their cosmetic procedures reflect this difference - is buried in bad stereotyping and underinformed theorising. Like so much else to do with how sex is reported in the media by both the right and the left.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The thing about bullying

There's been a lot of to-do in the UK blogosphere this week about the nature and extent of online bullying, particularly towards women. The fact that women online can find themselves on the receiving end of disgusting sexual and sexist abuse (and over the top threats in general) is not a new thing, but the particular focus on articles by and about feminist bloggers is attracting attention in a way it hasn't before.

And that is generally good for people to know about. We all know and talk about "trolls", of course, but rape and death threats are a whole 'nother level. The fact that this happens, has been happening to a lot of people for years, raises the question of just how (in an online culture that widely endorses freedom of speech) to handle these things.

I've had a lifetime of bullying. As someone who wore glasses, was two years younger than everyone in my year, had terrible acne, and was a nerd in a way that was not and will never be cool, I'm sure you can imagine. There was one particularly nasty little piece of work who told me (when I was about five) that his goal every day was to make me cry. This usually involved bodily knocking me over onto the ground, usually while I was carrying something. Even in photos from high school, I had skinned knees and elbows courtesy of this little thug. We were at school together for ten years. I knew the teachers knew, and no one ever said a word about it.

As an adult, because what I write about offends pretty much everyone, the cycle has renewed. What I write is controversial and I'd be an idiot not to think people will react. And when bullies react they always go for the low-hanging fruit: your sex, your appearance, your family. Religion, race, orientation. The hooker thing. Whatever they can get. Life is unfair. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

There's a lot of crap online, some of which I've confronted people over, but the vast majority of which it would just be too time-consuming to care about. There is a reason I don't have blog comments, a well-publicised email address, or an easy-to-locate physical address. The internet thrives on communication and interaction; that's no reason to assume there should be unfettered, complete, and full intrusion at all times. Weirdly, there are people who are the targets of bullying who still seem to think that if they exercise their ability to block or ignore the haters, that "the trolls win". Um, no. The trolls won because they stole yet more of your time and energy. And managed to convince you that if you refuse to interact with them, you're the one who's in the wrong.

But it also means that because the bar is raised so significantly, the people who do manage to get in contact are considerably more worrying than, say, a random comment on a blog. There is, of course, a special moment that comes the first time you get a posted death threat, or the first time a package is delivered to your work from someone banged up in a foreign prison. (Pro tip: don't open it.)

As a for-instance, I was contacted this week by people who now live at an address where I resided in 2006. They received a package in the post addressed to me. It is bizarre to think someone is trawling places I have lived in order to pass on things I don't want and certainly don't need. I told them to throw it away, because seriously, what the hell? Even if it's well-intentioned and not a piece of human waste in a bag, the sender does not, repeat, DOES NOT have any business stalking people like that. It's intrusive, it's scary, and there are a surprising number of people who think they are entitled to interact with you at all costs and will suddenly turn weird and threatening when you don't happen to agree.

"Should" things be different? Yeah, but I live in the real world. It is horrible to be sitting in your own house afraid of a knock at the door. And it's just as horrible to be flinching at shadows. Block and ignore if it's a flamer or time-waster, and save real ire for the people who might actually try to do you harm. If sieving one group from the other is something you have trouble with, The Gift of Fear is highly recommended.

If you are someone who gets threats, online or in meatspace, there are resources available to help. Use them! Bristol, for instance, had a good team dealing with online threats (while I was living there, anyway) - I found the police very helpful. Scotland's harassment laws have finally been strengthened to include online harassment, not just physical confrontation. These are positive things that will hopefully become the norm everywhere someday. But not without the public knowing about, and using, them.

So the thing about bullying is, where you are in fear of someone attacking, for goodness' sake go to the police.

Where there are not resources for handling online threats, you should talk to the police, not just your 'safe spaces'. Not just social media. There's a line between catharsis and whingeing and I'm not sure it's even a particularly thin line. Twitter is useful for sharing some kinds of information, but it does not change the world. Blog comments can be an interesting source of opinions or moral support, but they do not change the world. If the police and law don't help you, use that to whip up public sentiment to pressure the people in power to make a change. Do what the online bullies can't do: get out from behind the computer. But don't not try. And don't tell me a hashtag is going to magically fix bullying.

And now the other thing about bullying. One of the often overlooked aspects of this discussion is that shit rolls downhill. In real life and online too. Very often, people who are themselves bullied can exercise less-than-great judgment of when they are also adopting the rhetoric and action of belittlement and abuse.

As hated as I was at school, there was someone who was hated more. You maybe recall me writing about a childhood friend with spina bifida? Yeah, we weren't friends to begin with. Owning up to the fact that I'd joined in when bigger, more threatening, more popular people taunted her simply because it took their attention off me was hard to do. And the excruciating moment when she acknowledged my apology? Well, I'd never felt so low in my life. Never felt so low since.

So I'm not trying to diminish what's happening in the feminist blogosphere. Real people are getting horrible things said to them. They are talking about it, which is good. This is an interesting conversation and one that needs to be had: when does disagreement become trolling, when does trolling become a threat, and when threats happen, what is the best thing to do about them? Hopefully that will lead to actually doing something about it.

But let's also remember that there are women and bloggers in that milieu whose attitude towards sex workers, trans people, female 'slebs - all of whom have been getting this treatment for yonks - perhaps could be considered to contribute to that atmosphere. Like the Burchill quote people seem to like so much about shooting prostitutes. Level-headed criticism of the sex trade it ain't. If you promote the jokey murder imagery, don't be alarmed if people are surprised when you call foul.

It's all part and parcel of labelling other women as unwomen. Sure, call out rape culture... but don't be unaware of a parallel hate culture you may unwittingly be contributing to.

Does that excuse the people who make rape threats or post others' addresses online in an attempt to frighten and harass? It does not. Obviously, people who do that have gone far beyond common or garden trolling. But have they perhaps been egged on a bit? Have we perhaps played our own part in blurring the line so such people think what they're doing has no consequences? I think on some level we all have. It doesn't mitigate the criminality of actual physical threats, but it does make it hard - very hard - to play the sympathy card.

Am I above all this? Am I fuck. Like I said, I have been bullied. I also have been the thoughtless asshole saying nasty stuff about people who probably didn't deserve it. It is a hard thing to admit to, much less understand why anyone does it. People and their reasons for doing anything? Pretty complicated. But maybe part of the motivation is to distance ourselves from people even more reviled, even more unlikeable. To cushion the difficulty other people have with us by pointing to the freakier freaks. To keep that shit rolling downhill.

The internet is not "other people online" independent of our own contributions. It is made of us, and what we do online.