Here’s a New One: Vaccines Are impure

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Vaccines are huge right now, especially after the recent measles outbreak and good evidence that diseases which were previously all but eradicated are blossoming into existence again. While there are still some people whining about how horrible it would be if their kid caught the autisms (because apparently having autism is worse than getting an extremely painful and potentially fatal disease), that myth has been decently debunked at this point. Of course after the autism scare came the “vaccines contain mercury” freak out (oddly enough people didn’t seem too worried about the tuna they were eating, which contains more mercury than vaccines), then bits of fetuses, formeldahyde, aluminum, borax, and even GMOs (the horrors).

My particular favorite was the site that said vaccines were dangerous because they contain viruses.

Update: that is a lie, my new favorite is the site that says Nazi mass murderers work for the FDA and promote vaccines.

But now there appears to be a new concern. Are vaccines pure enough for the kids of crunchy moms who refuse to feed their kids anything but the naturalest, least chemical food, or clothe them in anything but pure cotton (maybe we are finally living up to the Leviticus laws)? NO! Of course not. They have MSG in them, they might include GMOs, they contain not organic eggs, and they might even have animal proteins in them. Ew. On top of that, it’s becoming more common for religious protests against vaccinations to include the idea of impurity, citing the idea that trusting God is more important than taking care of your health, and of course getting their panties in a twist over whether or not human fetuses were involved in making the vaccines.

All of this is scaremongering. In particular, the assertions that chemicals or GMOs have unknown consequences on the body is ridiculous, especially since to one extent or another all vaccines are genetically modified. But the idea that the human body needs to stay exactly how it was thousands of years ago in order to be pure is just plain dangerous, wrong, and also NO ONE ACTUALLY BELIEVES IT. If they did, they would be living significantly differently. Unless you eschew all technology, medicine, science, and advances that might adjust the way your body functions (like oh, I dunno, electric lights), you’ve already accepted on some level that you’re artificially adjusting what it means to be human.

And that’s totally ok. Clearly we all do it and there are likely some elements of the modern lifestyle that aren’t great and others that are vast improvements on the past (see: vaccines). You don’t lose your special pure human card by existing in a society with technology and medicine. There’s no such thing as being an impure human with bad stuff in your blood, you can’t shed toxins (unless you’re a liver), and also none of this is relevant because vaccines save thousands of lives.

Look, if you want to treat your body like a temple and do some sort of spiritual god test of everything you put into it, that’s fine. But when your behavior affects other people it’s no longer the most important thing that you feel safe. It’s time to start relying on the facts that we have from decades of science. Those facts say vaccines=awesome. Sorry.

What’s the Harm in Belief?

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Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.

It’s Not Edgy to Be A Douche

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So as per fairly usual in my life, I had a minor encounter with a Facebook troll this morning. The conversation ended when I called him out by saying “So you’re just being a troll and you don’t care who gets hurt as long as you’re entertained” and he liked my comment. Apparently he found it really cool to be someone who hurt others. He also felt the need to point out that he associated with people that I would apparently “be disgusted by”, and insist that he was highly empathetic and open minded.

These are the classic troll behaviors. More than anything they illustrate to me that trolls have a few assumptions in common:

1.They are not constrained by the same beliefs that others are constrained by.
2. They are rebellious or forward thinking because they refuse to believe what others believe.
3. They are better than others for not being bothered by mere things like “words”.
4. When it really comes down to it, they’re good people.
5. It’s fun to hurt people as long as it’s over things that “don’t matter” like words.
6. When you hurt people over “stupid” things, you’re really just helping them see an edgier or more free thinking way. You’re doing them all a favor.

Unfortunately most of these assumptions and beliefs are simply wrong. Sometimes when you refuse to believe what others believe, you’re just wrong. There is in fact nothing wrong or overly sensitive about being hurt by words. We as human beings have a drive for acceptance, and words are in fact a form of acting. There is nothing about being cruel with your words that is helping another person or enlightening them to their own idiocy.

I’m about to drop some crazy knowledge on you guys here, so brace yourselves: being mean is not edgy. Being mean is not new. Acting superior and gaslighting people? It’s pretty much the oldest trick in the book. I’m going to be real honest: being mean is just straight out boring. EVERYONE knows how to do it. People even do it all the time without meaning to. Most people probably spend the majority of their time being mean to someone.

In addition, just disagreeing with people doesn’t make you right. In fact disagreeing with a lot of people also does not make you right. Sometimes (I know this will be hard to believe) the majority does actually have the correct facts! There is nothing about disagreeing with other people that is inherently cool, edgy, forward thinking, or good.

You might think that you’re looking real damn good compared to those sissies who overreact. You might think you’re making a statement. You might think you’re more rational or reasonable. But here’s the honest truth: you just look like a douche. Not only that, but you often look pretentious, uninformed, rambling, and unintelligent.

All those little lies that you feed yourself to pretend that you’re coming out on top, that it’s survival of the fittest and you’re the one surviving, that it’s just a big game? You know they’re lies. You know that we are built to be social animals and that at this point in our history we’ve moved past viciously ripping each other to shreds in order to survive. You know that it’s just plain outdated and redundant to do that crap at this point.

So please trolls, just be honest with yourselves. You’re not doing any of this for good reasons or because you’re really a great person. You’re doing it because you like to be mean. The sooner you accept that the sooner we can all move on.

What? You Think Differently?

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Sometimes themes crop up in life. I don’t know how it happens, but if anything were to convince me of a larger power it would be the fact that many times I will see the same idea or question reappear throughout a variety of areas in my life in a short span of time (this can of course be explained by the fact that I might be thinking a lot about the theme during that time). Recently I’ve been running across the idea of trying to understand a mind that doesn’t work like your own, and the assumption that all minds work the way yours does.

 

Last night I was talking to my boyfriend about our reactions to movies, and he said that he doesn’t come out of a movie with a reaction: it takes him time to process. I was flummoxed by this. “Don’t you walk out of a movie and think ‘I enjoyed that?’” I asked him. He said he didn’t, or at least not very often. This was almost impossible to process for me. I didn’t know how one could do that. And it hit me that I’d been assuming all my life that everyone reacted like I did to movies or plays or other artistic works: immediately. It hadn’t even occurred to me that perhaps the way people processed a reaction could be different from mine because I couldn’t fathom how that would be possible. Why would I have guessed that someone else would process differently from me until I was faced with it?

 

This morning I had coffee with my dad and we talked about a wide range of things, but one of them was our mutual confusion over people who are religious and why they think the way they do. I expressed confusion that someone could believe in such a way that is so detrimental to their well-being, particularly without any questioning whatsoever. As someone who naturally asks “why” to nearly everything, it seemed utterly foreign to me to just accept what someone says. I cannot conceive of what it would be like to hear someone claim something and just say “ok”.

 

All of us do this. It’s thoroughly natural to generalize from our own experience to the experiences of others. Unfortunately it’s also extremely faulty logic and doesn’t hold up against observable reality. It’s also a fairly self-centered way of thinking and a good way to create some difficulties when communicating with others.

 

But probably the most important element of this tendency is that most of us do it without realizing it. Unless there’s someone else there telling us that they process differently than we do, there’s no way for us to know that we’re incorrect in our assumptions. An example from the history of philosophy: philosophy of mind has spent a great deal of time wondering about whether we can form images in our mind or not. For a long time philosophers would argue back and forth, with one passionately saying that of course there were images in the mind, and another saying that it was impossible. Only recently by looking back through the history of the debate have we realized that each philosopher was essentially generalizing their experience: one who could bring up images in his mind argued that they must exist for everyone, one who couldn’t argued they were impossible for anyone. People published entire books based on the premise that everyone’s minds must work like theirs and they didn’t even notice.

 

This is all to say that it’s extremely easy to make this assumption without realizing it. Unfortunately, the assumption can also be damaging. It’s the sort of thing that underlies the assumption that listening or learning looks the same for all children. It’s what can lead us to assume that someone is criticizing us or mocking us when they’re expressing things differently. It’s what can lead us to label someone “stupid”. It’s what leads to things like victim blaming, classism, and attempts to write opinions into law.

 

It may seem like an esoteric or arbitrary element of human nature to focus on, but it can do wonders for your empathy to pay attention to not just what others think, but also how.

“Mental Illness is Not Biological”

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I am a big proponent of being careful with language. I don’t think that we should oversimplify something simply because it sounds better or is better marketing. Especially when it comes to mental illness, we are so sloppy with our language as it is that I think we must be careful. I don’t like the idea that we should describe mental illness as “a chemical imbalance” because it deeply oversimplifies things. So I was fairly dismayed when I sat down to read an article in my local paper about the need to talk more about mental illness and it simply repeated over and over “mental illness is not biological” and that we need to spend more time talking about the pharmaceutical industry.

Many people do not pay enough attention to the biological factors of mental illness. Yes, we recognize that genes can cause a predisposition, but more than that, basic biological systems can deeply affect your mental health. A few examples: sleep deprivation can easily cause symptoms of mental illness. It can deeply affect mood, emotional stability, depression, anxiety, and other brain functions. Continual sleep deprivation can spur a mental illness. I’m not sure what one would call that if not a biological factor.

Similarly, food deprivation is deeply correlated with some serious signs of mental illness. In the hunger studies performed at the University of Minnesota, individuals who willingly deprived themselves of food became depressed, anxious, obsessed, violent, withdrawn…they had diagnosable mental illnesses that were not present before the removal of food. Again, this seems to be a strictly biological change that triggered a mental illness.

Factors like these are often heavily discounted when we talk about mental illness, particularly when we’re attempting to recover from mental illness. Not enough time is spent focusing on the fact that if you don’t have a healthy biological basis with adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise, it is significantly more difficult to have a stable mood and recover from a mental illness.

In addition, we do know that genes play some role in mental illness. We know from twin studies that many mental illnesses are far more likely to occur in an individual if they have close family members with that mental illness. For some mental illnesses, we have identified specific genes that might be linked to that mental illness. The most likely theory about mental illness right now is that we are genetically pre-disposed to an illness (to varying degrees depending upon the person) and social or environmental factors then can trigger that mental illness. And yes, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry are implicated in that mental illness. Yes, there are physical processes that have been disrupted when we are talking about mental illness. No, it’s not just a chemical imbalance, yes it is more complex than that, but of course it’s biological because our brains are a biological organ.

This is intensely frustrating, because it makes it seem as if the social factors that affect our mental health have no bearing on the physical existence of our brain. In fact studies done on chimps have shown that certain brain chemicals are altered over the course of years by trauma or isolation (if a chimp is isolated at a young age they will have different levels of certain brain chemicals when placed in isolating situations than a chimp not isolated at a young age and these effects last for many years). This is a physical change brought on by an environmental factor.

Of course it’s important to be careful not to oversimplify, but obscuring that there clearly is a biological factor to mental illness is not helpful either. In addition, the fear of labeling mental illness as biological plays directly into the fear of overdiagnosing and overprescribing. When we repeat over and over that mental illness is not a biological illness that revolves around neurotransmitters and brain chemicals, we become even more paranoid about prescribing medication (something that people are already worried about in the case of things like ADHD and Xanax). Speaking as someone who takes medication, this is incredibly damaging. Medication can be a complete life-saver: it made my anxiety manageable and so it gave me a window to actually begin dealing with some of my underlying issues. I was afraid to begin taking medication because I didn’t want to “alter my brain”. Repeating the myth that pharmaceutical companies are out to get us all and that medications are not the proper way to treat mental illness reinforces that stigma.

Of course we should include various kinds of therapy when we’re working on mental illness, but it is actually incredibly difficult to get medication for many mental illnesses and particularly difficult to get insurance to cover it. People are already afraid of medication. People are already afraid of being turned into zombies by pills or having unknown side effects. It is possible to advocate for improved standards for pharmaceutical companies AND accept that medication can be an incredibly important part of treating mental illness.

We need to recognize that mental illness is complex, requires a number of kinds of treatments, and involves a variety of factors including the biological, social, environment, genetic, chemical, and situational. While it is important to move past the “chemical imbalance” trope, that doesn’t mean completely removing any mention of chemistry or biology from our descriptions of mental illness.

Falling Through the Cracks: When the DSM Can’t Find You

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This week in my DBT group, we were talking about what Borderline Personality Disorder is and how it’s diagnosed (DBT was originally formulated for BPD). Essentially, there are nine traits that are used to diagnose BPD. If your diagnosing therapist sees five or more of them in you, then you are diagnosed with BPD. If you have less than five, but still have some, you are diagnosed with what’s called BPD Traits. I had never heard of BPD Traits before, and I don’t think most people have. Insurance is far less likely to cover something that sounds subclinical like that, and it’s far less likely to be understood by the general public. It simply sounds less severe, right?

 

Unfortunately, this system has a few major flaws, and it seems to me that these flaws are indicative of many of the problems with the DSM as a diagnostic manual. The main problem with this system of diagnosis is that many of the traits of BPD are things that everyone has to some extent or another (things like anger issue, or efforts to keep people from leaving you), and so they only become diagnosable when they seem to be excessive or problematic. This leaves a great deal up to the discretion of the diagnosing therapist. It also means that that therapist has to draw a hard line about what counts as problematic and what doesn’t, when in reality these traits exist on a spectrum. So you could be just over the line and counted as having the trait, or you could be so far over the line you can barely function on a day to day basis, and in the eyes of the diagnosis, you have the same trait.

 

This also means that the difference between BPD and BPD traits isn’t as clear cut as it might seem in the first place. For example, someone with BPD might be just over the line on five traits, but someone with BPD traits might be way, way over the line in four. Who’s to say which is more severe, or that one should receive a full diagnosis that allows them access to treatment, while the other receives a diagnosis that gets them almost nothing?

 

Overall, this illustrates something that is definitely wrong with the DSM: mental illness and mental traits all exist on spectrums. There is no on or off switch to depression, anxiety, paranoia, or any other problem that may be diagnosed as a mental illness (with the possible exception of hallucinations). However in order to diagnose someone (and particularly for that individual to gain coverage of treatment), symptoms are treated as present or not present. Occasionally we use modifiers like “severe” or “mild”, but more often than not it’s either there or it’s not.

 

This seems to be a recipe for disaster for people whose symptoms either don’t present as traditionally understood, who are barely subclinical, or who have an odd constellation of symptoms. I find that I often have this problem: I have lots of issues (oh LOTS and lots). I have bits of OCD, OCPD, ADD, BPD, depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia, and really probably a whole host of other things. But because many of them are subclinical, or I don’t have the right pairings to fit into a particular diagnosis, I have been left without any sort of personality disorder diagnosis, or larger diagnosis to fit it all together. Despite how severe my eating disorder was, I was lumped in the EDNOS category, which is far less often covered, and is often treated with less respect and as less severe than other eating disorders.

 

This is a serious problem if we want to provide proper services for those people suffering from mental health issues. We shouldn’t have to wait until a symptom is truly interfering with someone’s basic functions before we give them help. There are many problems with the DSM, and trying to posit a replacement for it is extremely difficult, but one element that really could use replacement is this all or nothing thinking. There is no “partially depressed” or “sort of ADD”. You either have it or you don’t. One improvement could be seeing mental health on a spectrum. We all have different traits, and many of those traits are spectrum style traits. Understanding that moving towards the extremes is always a problem is one great way to view mental health in a more understanding and helpful way, because it allows us to try to help everyone move towards a more balanced place, and could allow us to provide treatment for those who have not yet reached the critical zone.

 

Another issue with this system is the amount of discretion that it allows for the diagnosing clinician. Let’s look at a particular example. One of the criteria for diagnosing BPD is “inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger”. This is fairly vague. What counts as inappropriate anger? How might things like race and gender fit into this (hint: black women will always be viewed as having inappropriate anger)? Shouldn’t there be specific examples of things that might constitute inappropriate anger, or the consequences in someone’s life for “difficulty controlling anger” or the number on an emotional scale of what constitutes “intense” anger? How often does one need to be intensely angry to get this trait? All of these things are left up to the discretion of the diagnosing clinician, and unfortunately this allows for a lot of bias.

 

There is a difficult balance here, because having that kind of specificity means that you could be very close to a diagnosis, but not quite reach the correct number of episodes, or the right “level” of anger to reach diagnosis. It seems to me that having these specific levels combined with a spectrum view of disorder would allow clinicians to have less individual discretion that can lead to variability in diagnosis, but would also allow more people to get the treatment that they need. It is widely recognized that we need some changes in the DSM, but these particular issues are ones that I have seen in action in myself and in people around me, and that seem as if they could be fixed without great difficulty. Get on that DSM.

Sex is a Gift: Creepy or Explanatory?

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Many times when people who are not of the fundamentalist persuasion hear the phrase “sex is a gift that you give your partner” we shudder. We cringe. It sounds objectifying and just kind of weird. It’s often code for the idea that you owe your partner your body, and that your body must be undamaged, or only for them. There are good reasons to dislike that phrase, especially in contexts that are promoting virginity and purity culture.

I recently used the wording of sex as a gift in a blog post at Skepchick, and some people found that unacceptable or wrong. I’d like to explore here why we should or should not view sex as a gift. What are the implications of that? How is it helpful? What does it clarify?

So first, what is a gift? “A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” By “thing” we often mean non-physical things. You can give someone the gift of time, kindness, an event, an enjoyable experience…there are all kinds of things we gift on each other. Generally when you’re in a relationship with someone, you give them gifts because you like and enjoy them and you want them to be happy. You give them things you think would enhance their life, their pleasure, or their well-being. Sometimes gifts come with strings attached, but hopefully if you have a good relationship with someone or if you’re a kind person, you give your gift out of the desire to make someone else happy.

Now how does that fit into sex? Generally we have sex with someone as an experience of mutual pleasure and an expression of affection and/or love (or at least if we have a positive relationship to consent we do). Generally it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex. But if you aren’t that interested in sex, is it moral for you to “gift” sex to your partner: take your time, your energy, your body, and give those things to the other person for a time in order to show affection and make them happier? It seems to me that this falls directly under the definition of a gift as traditionally understood, and that we often do things like this with other experiences that we don’t wholly enjoy. I’ve done things like take my guy to a baseball game even though I despise baseball, or try foods that scare me, because it makes my partner happy. I doubt anyone would say that my partner had done anything wrong by accepting those gifts, and I certainly didn’t think I had. I enjoyed making my partner happy.

What is it about sex that means we cannot or should not gift it in the same way we might a different experience that we don’t enjoy? One element of “sex as a gift” that many people seem to find upsetting is the idea that you can have unenthusiastic sex without it being rapey or creepy. This is understandable. Because sex is so intimate and involves your body so intimately, and because many people feel uncomfortable saying no, sex without enthusiasm can often feel unethical. In addition, when people try to signal their nonconsent through being unenthusiastic, it is often ignored. Enthusiasm is an important signal to consent, however there are other ways to express your consent (like with your words).

However if we go into unenthusiastic sex with our eyes open, it doesn’t have to be unethical. If one partner decides for themselves that they want to have sex with an enthusiastic partner, communicates that to their partner, and they then proceed, I don’t see how that is unethical. And the best word to describe that situation is, to me, gift. One person is choosing to give something without asking for something in return. I will say that this type of situation is incredibly rare, and one must exercise extreme caution not to pressure or coerce one’s partner into consenting to sex despite their lack of enthusiasm. And as the partner consenting without enthusiasm, it’s important to take care of yourself: you have to pay extremely close attention to whether you’re feeling used, unwanted, hurt, or uncomfortable and take that into account when granting your consent. But consenting without enthusiasm, giving a gift of a good time to your partner does not seem to me per se to be unethical.

There is however another element to sex as a gift that is troubling, and that’s the idea that sex as a gift involves giving your body as a gift. This is somewhat objectifying. Your body is more than just a thing for your partner to use. It’s you. Can you really give yourself as a gift for someone else to enjoy? I do see this as a potential problem with viewing sex as a gift rather than an experience shared together. However I will say that we do often use the phrasing “giving the gift of time” or “giving the gift of company”. There are other times and places that we view being present and reciprocating something as a gift, and a wholly acceptable and good one. I think that including your body complicates things, but again, we might imagine someone giving their partner a massage as a gift.

Overall I think this language is complicated. It may work for some people and some situations and it can be incredibly harmful in others. When we do use it, I think it’s important to specify that we’re not giving our bodies to each other, but that we’re giving someone our time and energy and joy because we love them and want them to be happy, and because we don’t see it as harming ourselves. A gift given that harms the giver (and I don’t mean involves some small sacrifice I mean truly harms) is a bad gift. A gift is not the same thing as turning oneself into a martyr or a sacrifice. And particularly if you want your relationship to continue to function in the long run, gifts should not come at the expense of your physical or mental well-being. Just like any other gift you give in a relationship, you can’t break the bank.

So perhaps the language of “gifts” does make sense, particularly in relationships where people have differing sex drives and need to have a conversation about consent that includes meeting everybody’s needs without harming everybody. When it’s surrounding things like virginity and purity? Probably not appropriate.