Saturday, October 26, 2013

Today's Quote From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

I have a 1906 edition of her collected letters.  She lived from 1689 to 1762 and is most famous for introducing*  inoculation for smallpox in Britain  from Turkey where her husband was the British ambassador from 1716 to 1718

Her letters vary in quality, but I love the very early ones which she wrote as a teenager.  This quote is probably from a 1709 letter.  It's to Mrs. Hewett:

Next to the great ball, what makes the most noise here is the marriage of an old maid, who lives in this street, without a portion, to a man 7,000 pounds per annum, and they say, 40,000 pounds in ready money.  Her equipage and liveries outshine anybody's in town.  He has presented with 3,000 pounds in jewels; and never was man more smitten with these charms that had lain invisible for these forty years; but, with all his glory, never bride had fewer enviers, the dear beast of a man is so filthy, frightful, odious and detestable.  I would turn away such a footman, for fear of spoiling my dinner, while he waited at table. 
They were married on Friday, and came to church en parade on Sunday.  I happened to sit in the pew with them, and had the honour of seeing Mrs. Bride fall fast asleep in the middle of the sermon, and snore very comfortably; which made several women in the church think the bridegroom not quite so ugly as they did before.

The letters have quite a bit of feminism (and some anti-feminism), but this quote made me chuckle.
*She may not have been the first who tried that but she was the first who succeeded.  Edward Jenner developed the technique of vaccination somewhat later.

Friday, October 25, 2013

And The Party Approaches. My Tenth Blog Anniversary.

Shocking, isn't it?  In early November I will have spent ten precious years blabbing about everything here.  This will have to be a time of stock-taking.

A Few BIzarre Things About How Women's Sexuality and Fertility Are Viewed

If I were Alfie, the friendly alien from outer space, I would probably be shocked by this tweet today:

South Korea Struggles to Confront Stigma of Sexual Assaults

Because if I were an alien, I wouldn't know that the stigma attaches itself to the victim and not the perpetrator.  When you think of the fact that almost all of us know stigma is the victim's problem, what does that tell us about our sexual mores?  I think Alfie would be aghast.

This is bizarre, this extreme form of victimization.  First you get abused, then you get shamed.

The roots are probably in the very old idea that a young woman is like a gift-wrapped box of sexual and fertility goodies,  and that it is her parents who decide whom to give her to.  Nobody wants a used present, so the owners of the young woman (initially her parents) must make sure that she doesn't get prematurely unwrapped or soiled.  It doesn't ultimately matter if the soiling was involuntary, because the woman's value drops in either case.  And in many cultures so does the family's honor.

Add to that the view (once common everywhere and still common in many places) that once the present has been unwrapped, everyone should be entitled to have what's inside it.  Hence the Victorian  plot of a raped housemaid ending up on the streets, what with the stigma causing all other jobs to be closed for her. It's as if the gift-wrapped box has been tossed away and no longer belongs to anyone so every by-passer is entitled to some of its contents.

I am not singling South Korea out here.  This problem has been global and most likely still applies to the majority of sexual attack survivors.  It is the reason for "silence as the best remedy".  It is the reason why feminists fight victim-blaming so vigorously. It is, however, still bizarre.

Something every bit as bizarre applies to fertility.  It struck me forcibly some days ago, and I had to stew the idea for a bit to decide if I'm oversensitive or not.  I decided I am not.

Here's the thought:  If you wanted to make having children as difficult and costly as possible, both in monetary and psychological ways, how would you go about doing it?  I think the answer is that you would follow many of the current policies in the US:  Minimize parental leave, refuse to make allowances for fertility in how the labor markets treat workers (no subsidized daycare, no real flexitime etc.) assume that all childcare will be done by the woman who gave birth to the child, fight to remove subsidized education as a viable alternative and support instead home-schooling, largely done by mothers.

Or think of the literature on child development.  Ninety-nine percent of articles about parenting are about the mothers, and the vast majority of those look at what mothers are doing wrong (not enough breast-feeding, not enough bonding, too much bonding,  too much fatty food cooked for the children, the cooking always assumed to be the mother's responsibility, bad mother-child relationships as the cause of childhood depression etc etc.)  And the later popular-psychology pieces are still very often about bad mothers and how they messed up their children.  Think of the "Mommy Dearest" branch of memoirs.  Think also of the Control Of The Bad Mother movement!  This begins before the child is even born.

Then add the legal rules about what constitutes child neglect (leaving a child under twelve alone in a parked car for a few minutes, say), the persistent media-supported fears about pedophilia, the requirement that middle-class parents (mothers) chauffeur their children from one event to another, how listening to Mozart during pregnancy or watching Little Einstein after it with the baby are necessary parts of child-rearing and if you don't follow them, you are a Bad Mother.  Or a Bad Parent.  At the same time, the wider public spaces are ultimately not child-friendly at all, what with complaints from other plane passengers or other restaurant diners etc.

The restrictions on parental life keep growing, and the guilt (aimed at mothers, in particular)  comes from all directions, including from other mothers in the Mommy Wars.  But to an alien from outer space, whatever gender that creature might be, all this surely looks like an intentional policy to cut back on fertility rates!

And when the logical happens and birth rates fall?  Then, my friends, the effort is directed towards making abortion and birth control unavailable.

That's how I framed the initial thought.  It's a little exaggerated, because we still have Medicaid for children and a few other safety nets of similar sort and because pain relief is still available for women giving birth. But the policies I see (and not only in the US) are almost all whip and only a few withered carrots when it comes to the debate about women and low birth rates.*

And sure, wanting to have children is a human drive.  Is that why we think it's OK to make it an option with high costs?
*The question what the birth rates should be, right now, is a separate one.  There's a sense in which low birth rates might be part of the therapeutic treatment Mother Earth requires, especially if we wish all humans on earth to have the same high standard of living and still have nature left over for other animals.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Common Sense=Men And Emotions=Women. So Limbaugh Tells Us.

Our old pal Rush is not really worth writing about because his shtick is so stale.  But his recent piece about the pink campaign for breast cancer cure or prevention among professional athletes as a sign of a general national assault on masculinity (wear mascara already, Rush!) offers me some material to talk about how some bad debate on gender is framed:

It goes like this:  You exaggerate and simplify, you lump all men into one group, all women into another group, and then you state that all men are the same as other men and that all women are the same as other women.  And the overlap in the groups?  Doesn't exist!

This is done so often that when you hear or read it you may just skate across, never noticing the crack in the ice.  Still, this assumption is usually what carries the rest of the story it is attached to.  If you become aware of this assumption, the other arguments frequently disintegrate.

Thus, Rush in this tirade labels women as emotional people and men as possessing no emotions but just common sense.  So he employs the trick I explained above.

But he also uses two other tricks:  The first is to resort to old stereotypes (men are thinkers, women are feelers), and the second is not to really think about what emotions are and what common sense is.

These two are related, because the stereotype about men not being emotional excludes anger, say, from the list of things which are deemed emotions, and because the gender stereotypes may make individuals choose a particular way of presenting their arguments, based on what they deem as most likely to work, irrespective of what they actually think and feel.

Although Rush doesn't use one further distorting trick common in much of bad gender debate, he has done so in the past and others use it frequently.  Thus it's worth mentioning here, too.

That trick is to compare men and women by picking examples from the opposite two ends of the distributions of various characteristics by gender.  For example, pick a man from the top of the male distribution (Einstein in intelligence)  and a woman from the bottom of the female distribution (the dum blonde of blonde jokes) and then compare the two.

I see this done quite a bit, and especially in the direction described above.  But I have seen it used in the reverse direction, too.  

Speed Blogging, Oct 24, 2013: On the Rights of Fetuses, Men and Women

This case spells out one consequence of the fetal rights movement, combined with the usual type of inattention to the rights of the womb-carrier as a full human being.  I can appreciate the complexity and difficulties of some cases of "fetal endangerment," but this case looks quite a bit simpler.  The woman is simply not believed.  The case also tells us why criminalization of drug use during pregnancy is likely to result in the exact reverse of what its supporters desire, if being honest and open about past drug use leads to such difficulties.  Better not to say anything or stay out of the health care system altogether.

Jaclyn Friedman has written about the many types of men's rights movement and what is wrong with them.  She is one brave writer!  If you wonder why I say that, follow the blog Manboobz for a few weeks or months. 

My experiences with debating some MRM members match Jaclyn's experiences.  The underlying beliefs about how the world works and what is really happening are so different that a real debate is, by definition, impossible in any meaningful length of time.  That, plus the large number of personal (and misogynistic) insults I received, made the work exhausting and pointless.

To finish, something quite different.  This Guardian article on the dangers of creating "nontroversies" in the social media is well worth reading.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

And Then Some More Fun Gender Research! On Textual Analysis of Gender in Emails. Or on Water Rats.

To explain why I write about this particular study, I have to mention the sites which picked it up hot from the oven.  They are a physics site and a tech site (you might not want to read the comments there).  Someone then brought the study to me the way my mom's cat used to bring her water rats:  Like a prize but not really.  In my case it was more like:  See?  Women and men are really very different and it's physics and tech guys who are interested in this matter, possibly because they want to tell us that women aren't in the STEM careers because of biological gender differences.

The study (pdf), however, is not about biological gender differences, or at least cannot prove that the differences it argues it found are biological.  It isn't even about mathematics or tech!  It has to do with a textual analysis of Enron management e-mails when it comes to emotions!  A girly topic, really, but whatever. 

The Enron managers'  e-mails are publicly available, and that's probably why they were picked for the analysis of gender differences in the language people use in e-mails.  The here-relevant conclusions of the study:
 We show that there are marked differences across genders in how they use emotion words in work-place email.  For example, women use many words from the joy-sadness axis, whereas men prefer terms from the fear-trust axis.
The e-mails used in the research came from the Enron corpus which contains more than 200,000 e-mails.  Sounds very impressive, right?  One can do a lot of statistical analysis with that amount of data.

Except that the study doesn't do any statistical inference.  What this means is that the results cannot be generalized to anything outside the studied groups of male and female Enron managers, and the number of those, after various prunings, consists of 41 women and 89 men, and their e-mails (a total of 32,045, 12,125 of those sent by women and the rest by men).

Likewise, we are not told what positions the men and women had in management.  In theory, emails by a marketing manager might well differ in tone from emails from an accounting manager, and if men and women are not equally dispersed among all the jobs, the analyses may not be about gender as much as about the position a particular manager has.

Never mind.  The point of what I'm doing here is this:  A possibly interesting but statistically a bit simplistic study creates ways to group words into categories such as "joy," "trust," "fear," "surprise," "sadness," "disgust," "anger" and "anticipation," and then compares the created groups to love letters and suicide letters in an attempt at partial validation. 

The categories are then used to analyze the emotional content of emails sent to and by 41 women and emails sent to and by 89 men, and conclusions are shown as bar graphs of differences in the percentages of various words by gender.

It's not that the study is terrible.  It reads like a pilot study.  But the attention it received from certain groups seems interesting, especially given that the summary I reproduce above should be written like this:

We show that there are marked differences across the male and female Enron managers in how they use emotion words in work-place email.  For example, the 41 women use many words from the joy-sadness axis, whereas the 89 men prefer terms from the fear-trust axis.
Those corrections are because the reader is given no information which would allow her or him to construct confidence intervals or test hypotheses, and that means that nothing in the study can be reliably generalized to groups outside it, and we can tell nothing about the statistical significance of the differences the tables in the article summarize, which, by the way, makes the adjective "marked" also pretty meaningless.

The other problem I came across while reading the study has to do with the percentage differences given in the tables.  However hard I tried, I couldn't get the same differences from the  data the researchers gave.  Because I can really be quite stupid (not often, but those female genes, you know), I wrote to both the researchers asking for clarification on how the figures were obtained.

That was two weeks ago.  Usually researchers are very nice to me and respond when I ask them questions which I often do, so I'm beginning to think that this particular question will remain unanswered.

To repeat, the point of this post is not the particular study as such, but the people who found it interesting, even considering its lack of statistical analyses and its pilot-study nature.

So that's how I baked the water rats for you. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

No Sex For Us. We Are Japanese!

That's a reference to the old joke about the British and sex.  The reason it's now about the Japanese is a story in the Guardian about how Japanese young people no longer ever plan to have nookie, ever! Both sexual intercourse and marriage are dying in Japan.  A story at Slate suggests that this new celibacy could be a viable cultural pattern for societies in general!

Which is hilarious, as the Shakers' experience demonstrates.  Unless we mean that it's a viable pattern for some people, not for whole cultures.

You don't really want to be me when reading stories of this type, because my brain is permanently set in the critical mode, and I always, always want better data and more data, and so I go grumpy.  Take this statement, from the Guardian article:

A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way.

What do those numbers mean?  We need to understand what answers the Japanese culture expects from men and women to such questions.  For instance, if young women are supposed to be pure and cute and virginal, as the article tells elsewhere, would such young women admit that they are interested in sexual contact?  And what were the findings of studies like this in the past, if such studies were carried out?  My guess is that in the 1950s close to a hundred percent of Japanese unmarried women might have answered that they are not interested in sexual contact. Because that was expected of them.

In other words, you need proper frameworks to understand what we are talking about.  And though interviewing individuals is always delightful, those anecdotes tell us nothing about how common some phenomena are.  For example, the women interviewed in the Guardian article are all at least middle class or higher, if I can read the class markers.  Would the same things apply to working class women?  To working class men?

All this means that I'm not completely convinced of the idea that the young Japanese will mostly never have intercourse or children again.  At the same time, something is going on, and part of it certainly has to do with two aspects of the Japanese society.

First, the very patriarchal norms about women and marriage and men and marriage:

Aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Nor is growing preoccupation with digital technology. But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country's procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it's especially true for women. "Marriage is a woman's grave," goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers. 
I meet Eri Tomita, 32, over Saturday morning coffee in the smart Tokyo district of Ebisu. Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. "A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realised I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up." 
Tomita says a woman's chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries. "The bosses assume you will get pregnant." Once a woman does have a child, she adds, the long, inflexible hours become unmanageable. "You have to resign. You end up being a housewife with no independent income. It's not an option for women like me." 
Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world's worst nations for gender equality at work. Social attitudes don't help. Married working women are sometimes demonised as oniyome, or "devil wives". In a telling Japanese ballet production of Bizet's Carmen a few years ago, Carmen was portrayed as a career woman who stole company secrets to get ahead and then framed her lowly security-guard lover José. Her end was not pretty.
The point of the article here is an excellent one:  Why would women with alternatives get married in a society which requires them to relinquish everything for it except a submissive and maternal role, fully at the mercy of the breadwinner in the family?  Even for women who want children,  being yelled at by the government about the low birth rate is not much of an incentive.  It's the whip, again, and not much carrot.

But men aren't offered such a great deal there, either.  The "salaryman," expected to provide for the family all on his own, is also expected to work twenty-hour-days, and the economic realities today,what with high cost of housing etc., means that families need two breadwinners.  But then the wife is a "devil wife" and round and round we go.

The second factor, other than the gender roles, has to do with the hi tech substitutes for sex in the Japanese society, such as Internet pron.  The incentive to use those (especially for heterosexual men as the markets cater for men's fantasies) is greater when living together and other such forms of heterosexual dating are disapproved of.  Nobody knows what you are doing with your computer.  And there are some slight hints (of which I might write about later) that a strong focus on technical masturbation makes real human individuals of the desired gender look like racks for genitals, not like human beings.

All these are first thoughts and written from outside the culture.  But consider the change in Japan:  Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote about the Japanese politicians whose wives had to walk a certain number of steps behind them.  Now we discuss Internet pron and gender roles in Japanese families.  So my guess is that the slow pace of change in norms and values is what is causing the problems, to the extent they exist, and that it is those norms and values which must change.   Add to that the real overpopulation of today's Japan.  Perhaps a lower fertility for a while IS the right path to follow?

Finally, the current ecological disaster in Japan would certainly put most people off the idea of a pregnancy in the near future.  It is that problem the Japanese should see to first, for all our sakes.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On Sock Puppets


There are two types of sock puppets.  The first type you can make out of socks, by stitching on eyes and a mouth (at the closed end of the sock).  The second type is  a way for one person or institution to comment on the net while appearing to be thousands!  Thousands.

The former you slip over your hand and then use your fingers to open and close its mouth while making silly comments in a squeaky voice.  I've done that.

The latter I have never attempted.  But sock puppets of that type exist.  A new book, according to Media Matters for America, suggests that Fox News has used these puppets.  I have no idea if that is true or not, but I have certainly come across comments threads in my surfing where people with quite different names write English broken in exactly the same way (not mine!) or where not only what they say is the same but the way they say it, too.  And sometimes on my own blog I find that these varied comments all come from the same address.

Does sock puppetry matter?  That depends on what we are focusing on.  If our only concern is the topic of the debate, sock puppetry doesn't matter.  After all, it's like one person shouting the same thing over and over again, and we have all seen that phenomenon, too.

On the other hand, sock puppetry has two serious problems.  The first one is that it exaggerates the number of individuals who bother to comment about something in a particular way.  The second one is that people using sock puppets also create elaborate sub-conversations with themselves, pretending that there are many participants in those.  These can destroy the main conversation of the thread.

The first problem is probably the more severe one.  But then it's not terribly different from the astro-turf campaigns (like false grass-roots) where a political site, say, tells all its readers to go and bomb the same comments thread.  This is common on many MRA sites.  The similarity comes from the fact that both phenomena will look like spontaneous reactions by many people to an article they just happened to come across, the way other commentators probably did come across it.

This changes the game.

Is sock puppetry trolling?  What do you think?