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Some Motherly Advice To My Male Readers

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I have an acquaintance who just found out she’s pregnant. She’s my age (early thirties) and the father is a 24-year-old guy who had recently broken up with her, but apparently they got together one last time and . . . boom.

She’s emphatically keeping it.


They used condoms, but apparently one broke. And now his life is completely changed, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

It is important to realize that MEN HAVE NO REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS in Western countries once their semen has left their body. So what can you do to avoid this situation?

  1. Always use condoms, every time, even if she’s on the pill, even if she claims she’s had tubal ligation, even if she’s 42 (n.b. ESPECIALLY if she’s 42).
  2. Even when using condoms, ALWAYS PULL OUT before you come. This is the only way to ensure against condom breakage.
  3. Flush that shit when you’re done. In wastewater treatment facilities, condoms and other debris get strained out of the water before it’s treated and released into the ocean or wherever.

It’s not fair or good that this should be the only sexual experience a man can have without fear of being an unintended parent. But it’s the way the world currently is. Don’t get caught out there, guys. Your reproductive rights begin and end with your semen; control that stuff before it gets made into a baby.

Have fun!

Written by Sister Y

May 3, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Posted in condoms, gender, sex, withdrawal

It Might Get Better

with 10 comments

It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds.


Many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, [sic] let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The It Gets Better Project is a creative, non-coercive suicide prevention project directed at gay youth, who are at a highly elevated risk for suicide attempts. Folks are invited to make a pledge:

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that “It Gets Better.” [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Dan Savage, the creator of the project, says:

‘When a gay teenager commits suicide, it’s because he can’t picture a life for himself that’s filled with joy and family and pleasure and is worth sticking around for,’ he declared.

‘So I felt it was really important that, as gay adults, we show them that our lives are good and happy and healthy and that there’s a life worth sticking around for after high school.’

I find many things to be supportive of here:

  • It acknowledges how sucky life is for many gay kids;
  • Non-coercive methods are advocated;
  • It’s pro-gay and pro-freedom;
  • It’s kind of heartwarming and encourages people not to be ashamed of something it’s stupid to be ashamed of.

However, as much as I approve of these aspects of the project, I would not be able to make the above-printed pledge. “It gets better” is an empirical statement, and it is one I don’t think can responsibly be made so unequivocally. I think there is a great deal of evidence that it does not, in fact, get better. It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds. We do it, I think, to feel better about the wrongs we allow or commit against children, both as parents and as a society that can only function with a high rate of reproduction. We are here told to tell the gay kids and the bullied kids that it gets better. But what we need to ask first is: does it get better?

For Kristin and Candace Hermeler, the Australian twin sisters who attempted to carry out a suicide pact (with limited success) in Colorado, “it” does not seem to have gotten “better.” An article in the New York Times indicates that the 29-year-old sisters were bullied as children, and chose to die at a shooting range in Colorado because of its proximity to the site of the Columbine massacre. For the Hermeler sisters (no word on their sexual orientations), being bullied in high school was not, apparently, followed by a happy life of contentment and adventure. It was followed by a mutual wish to die.

One question we need to answer empirically is whether gay suicide attempts in fact decrease dramatically with age. If they do, that’s some evidence that youth is just a tough period to get through. I haven’t dug up any data either way (let me know if you find some); the only study I’ve seen found that “first attempts” tend to cluster at young ages, but I don’t think that has anything to say about later-in-life suicidality.

“It Gets Better” makes the assumption that children are committing suicide because they irrationally think life is crappy and won’t get better. Many attribute the high rate of teen gay suicides to bullying and homophobia:

Beth Zemsky, director of the University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office, said [a 1998 study indicating an increased risk of suicide for gay youth] is consistent with previous research. She also said our culture’s intolerance of homosexuality, which can often be violent, leads many to take their own life [sic].

“Suicide attempts are often caused by the stress of a homophobic society,” said Zemsky. “The study is in line with the American Psychiatric Association. People are not killing themselves because they are gay, but because they are dealing with a society that discriminates.” [Bolded emphasis mine.]

I have never seen the evolutionary psychology side of things considered with regard to the high rate of suicide among gay kids, but that nasty idea seems to require serious consideration here, if only to make better models to understand suicide. This may help us understand why gayness is a risk factor for male suicide attempts, but not female. (Personally, I took way more crap in high school for being a cheerleader and being on the math team than I ever have for being bisexual.)

The idea that youthful suffering is short-lived is an empirical proposition. There is some evidence that as people age, their ability to cope with life’s suffering increases. But not always. If the organizers of the It Gets Better Project cared about intellectual honesty, they’d call it the “It Might Get Better Project.”

But that wouldn’t be as catchy.

Written by Sister Y

November 22, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence

with 20 comments

Introductory Words about Truth, Legend, and Bullshit: Putting the “Pissed” back into Epistemology

Truth is secondary. On its own, it doesn’t help us survive or reproduce, and it isn’t even necessarily any fun. Truth often does us more harm than good. Human beings have not evolved to actively care about and seek out truth for its own sake. (It’s often beneficial to signal that one cares about truth when one does not – this, rather than mere factual inaccuracy, is the genesis of bullshit.)

Truth – and here, I mean factual veracity – is especially vulnerable in the face of legend, the kind of cultural story that invests its believers with feelings of comfort, belonging, and value. Facts that contradict important legends tend to be denied and disbelieved; uncomfortable facts are prevented from reaching consciousness, and if forcibly brought to consciousness, are resoundingly shouted down. (This strong emotional reaction – the shouting-down of facts contradictory to cherished beliefs – is valuable to those who try to serve truth for truth’s sake, because the strong emotional reaction is a clue to the existence of an underlying important cultural legend or fixed belief that can, once identified, be examined.)

Legends are not necessarily universal. The pictures is more complicated. Often there are two or more competing, incompatible legends within a large society on the same topic. Subcultures form around countercultural legends, and these new legends are not necessarily any closer to truth as the majority legend.

Such is the case with beliefs about gender. There are some beliefs about gender roles and differences that are so common among human societies as to form a sort of universal legend. In modern times, feminism has provided a countercultural narrative to many of the traditional beliefs about gender (defining the prevailing norms as patriarchy). Feminism was such a popular critique that it became, over a generation or two, arguably the predominant cultural narrative about gender in modern Western society. And a counter-counter-critique which we might call the men’s rights movement has challenged the feminist narrative (labeling it gynocracy – only sometimes tongue-in-cheek). From the perspective of history, we can see the back-and-forth of revolution and counter-revolution, but we must make our factual judgments in the present moment. Recognizing the narratives and counter-narratives is a first step in looking for truth – but it is by no means a final step.

Every source has its biases; I myself, as stripped of myth as I consider myself to be, no doubt operate with my own unrecognized legends forming the firmament of my consciousness. But let’s try to look beneath at least the truth-threatening legends we can recognize, while remaining open to the possibility that our reasoning may be swayed by unseen narratives.

Legends exist where, for the legend believer, some fact must be true or can’t be true. That is, the need to believe the legend is greater than the desire for truth (this is the origin of political correctness – a particular form of the more general class of bullshit). But compare the life work of even someone as purportedly truth-seeking as a scientist; if a scientist becomes identified with a particular theory, it must be mortally terrifying to have this theory threatened. One’s life work will be undone. I think we must be circumspect about even the truth-orientation of scientists. But that doesn’t make science worthless; only imperfect.

On to the Sex and Violence

I am interested here in violence in sexual relationships, or marital violence, if you prefer.[1] Specifically, I am interested in the question of how violence by men in relationships compares to violence by women in relationships. Murray Straus and others claim that women are just as violent in relationships as men – in terms of frequency and severity of violence. Others dispute this claim. I can’t pretend to be neutral, since I had formed the belief prior to writing this article that men are, in fact, more violent than women in relationships; but many people that I respect (including David Benatar) have articulated the opposite belief, and I must ardently promise (okay, signal) that I was, and still am, open for correction on this issue if presented with strong evidence.


At the outset, I ask the reader to imagine himself a sociologist, and to think about what sources we might consult to explore the question of who is more violent in relationships, and what these sources’ limitations might be. As a sort of epistemological meta-issue, we would ideally like to find lots of different types of sources using different methodologies; and the more these diverse sources agree, the more confident we may be in our conclusion. Similarly, if a source has a limitation or potential bias, we must examine such limitations and biases. Assuming that a bias exists it is as unscientific as assuming there is no bias – such a claim must be examined, not assumed to be true or false.

In brief, some of the sources we might consult – and their expected limitations – are as follows: (please suggest other sources in the comments section)

  • General population surveys, utilizing various methodologies. (Limitations: depends on both truthfulness and accuracy of subjects)
  • Targeted surveys using various methodologies. (Limitations: findings may not reflect general population; depends on truthfulness and accuracy of subjects
  • Emergency room records. (Limitations: only catches violence that produces injury, and for which treatment is sought. Lesser and unreported violence will not be counted. Cause of injury may be partly determined by report of subjects, so some of the same limitations as survey data.)
  • Data on people seeking help with domestic violence (shelters, hotlines, etc.). (Limitations: only catches reported violence for which help is sought. Depends on truthfulness and accuracy of responders.)
  • Police assault records. (Limitations: Only catches violence that is reported to police. Conclusions may be partially based on reports by subjects, so truthfulness and accuracy of subjects is still an issue.)
  • Homicide records. (Limitations: only catches the most severe violence, which may or may not reflect general levels of violence.)

The error in these sources may be random (noise), or it may be systematic – effectively biasing the results in a particular direction. The latter type of error is more dangerous, from our perspective.

One type of systematic bias we must consider is that men may be less likely to report violence than women. It is shameful, we might hypothesize, for a man to let a woman smack him around; he might feel a bit silly going to the hospital or to police, or responding to a survey, even, especially given that human males are on average about 15% more massive than human females. This is related to the fact that, at the outset, we probably assign the greater probability to males being more violent in relationships; the idea that women are just as violent in relationships as men is counterintuitive, but that might just be because there is a huge, unrecognized epidemic of battered husbands too humiliated to speak out. It might be that the belief that men are more violent than women, that battered wives are more prevalent than battered husbands, is just a cultural legend that is ripe for toppling.

What the Case for Sexual Symmetry of Marital Violence is Based Upon

1. Conflict Tactics Scale

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the present day, Murray Straus began claiming that women are as violent as men in relationships. His claim in the initial studies was based on a single source of data: a survey of married or cohabiting couples, using the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) as its methodology.[2] Other researchers have since joined Straus; generally, they use the exact same methodology as the studies in the 1970s, that is, the Conflict Tactics Scale. This reliance on a single source of data for confirmation is endemic to those who claim sexual symmetry in marital violence; one 2000 meta-study[3] found that out of 82 empirical studies that found marital violence to be equal between genders, 76 of them used CTS measures exclusively.[4]

The CTS is nearly the only methodology that produces the counterintuitive result of gender symmetry in relationship violence. Where a hypothesis is supported by only a single source of data, and contradicted by all other sources, this does not necessarily mean that the single source is wrong. It does, however, necessitate careful review of the source producing the aberrant result. I will examine the CTS shortly. But there is one other source which produces similar results, and that is:

2. American Homicide Data

In the United States, women are nearly as likely to kill their husbands as men are to kill their wives. The Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) – the ratio of women who kill husbands (legal or de facto) to men who kill wives – is about 75 in the United States, meaning about 75 women kill their husbands or live-in boyfriends for every 100 men who kill their wives or live-in girlfriends.[5]

And that’s pretty much . . . it.

What the Case for Asymmetry is Based Upon

Everything else.


Evidence from criminal and divorce courts, police, women’s shelters, and emergency rooms all support the hypothesis that males commit considerably more violence than females in relationships, as do survey data using methodologies other than CTS.[4][6][7][8][9]

American SROK is Not Reflected by Homicides in Other Countries

Again, in the United States there are nearly equal homicide rates between husbands and wives (75 husband-killings for every 100 wife-killings). In every country other than the United States, however, the Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) is quite low – in no case higher than 40, and generally much lower than that.[6] This peculiarity of SROK data to the United States pretty much destroys its probative value for sexual symmetry of violence. As Dobash et al. note,

. . . U.S. homicide data and CTS data from several countries have been invoked as complimentary pieces of evidence for women’s and men’s equivalent uses of violence (citations omitted). One cannot have it both ways. If the lack of sex differences in CTS results is considered proof of sexually symmetrical violence, then homicide data must somehow be dismissed as irrelevant, since homicides generally fail to exhibit this supposedly more basic symmetry. Conversely, if U.S. homicide counts constitute relevant evidence, the large sex differences found elsewhere surely indicate that violence is peculiarly symmetrical only in the United States, and the fact that the CTS fails to detect sex differences in other countries must then be taken to mean that CTS is insensitive to genuine differences.[6]

Advocates of the sexual symmetry of violence hypothesis point to the reporting bias – mentioned above – to justify the poor match between CTS data and all the other data (except international homicide data, which, as they cannot be dismissed as products of reporting bias, go unexplained). Men, it is posited, are less likely to seek a protective order, to call the police, to go to the emergency room, to seek help from a hotline or shelter, to press charges against an offender, and to report being victimized to the National Crime Victims Survey (though not, for some reason, on CTS). Is this factually accurate? One study[10] found that male victims of domestic violence are actually significantly more likely than women to report domestic violence to the police – twice as likely, in fact – and less likely to drop the charges. Without data, we should not assume that a particular bias exists, any more than we should assume a particular data set is perfect and without bias. It is also a bit silly to assume that all violence against women is reported; women have strong reasons not to report marital violence, just as men do.

Why the CTS is Kind Of Retarded

1. Zero Interobserver Reliability

If CTS surveys were factually accurate, and were in fact detecting real phenomena, we would expect the reports of husbands and their wives to match. The validity of the CTS depends on people telling the truth; a necessary (thought not sufficient) condition for factual accuracy is that witnesses of the same incident agree with each other. In the case of marital violence and the CTS, they don’t. A given husband and wife interviewed separately using CTS methodology are no more likely than chance to agree in their reports of violence in the relationship. From Dobash et al.:

Szinovacz (1983)[11] found that 103 couples’ accounts of the violence in their interactions matched to a degree little greater than chance. On several CTS items, mainly the most severe ones, agreement was actually below chance . . . . In a similar study, Jouriles and O’Leary (1985)[12] administered the CTS to 65 couples attending a marital therapy clinic, and 37 couples from the local community. For many of the acts, the frequency and percentage data reported are impossible to reconcile [that is, data reported are mathematically impossible. -ed.]; for others, Jouriles and O’Leary reported a concordance statistic (Cohen’s Kappa) as equalling [sic] zero when the correct values were negative. Straus (1990b)[13] cites this study as conferring validity on the CTS, but in fact, its results replicated Szinovacz’s (1983)[11]: husband/wife agreement scarcely exceeded chance expectation and actually fell below chance on some items.[6] [Bolded emphasis mine.]

2. Conflation of Serious with Minor Violence

The Conflict Tactics scale asks responders to relate the violence they have perpetrated or experienced in their relationships according to acts: whether one has “pushed,” “slapped,” “kicked,” etc. the other. Certain acts are grouped together as mild, moderate, or severe, regardless of the specifics of the situation or the degree of injury, if any. Throwing an object qualifies as a “severe” assault, regardless of the nature of the object, the context of the “assault,” and whether the blow even landed. When case histories are examined closely, the retardedness of this classification becomes obvious. Again quoting Dobash et al.:

In a study of 103 couples, Margolin (1987)[14] found that wives surpassed husbands in their use of “severe violence” according to the CTS, but unlike others who have obtained this result, Margolin troubled to check its meaningfulness with more intensive interviews. She concluded:

While CTS items appear behaviorally specific, their meanings still are open to interpretation. In one couple who endorsed the item “kicking,” for example, we discovered that the kicking took place in bed in a more kidding, than serious, fashion. Although this behavior meets the criterion for severe abuse on the CTS, neither spouse viewed it as aggressive, let alone violent. In another couple, the wife scored on severe physical aggression while the husband scored on low-level aggression only. The inquiry revealed that, after years of passively accepting the husband’s repeated abuse, this wife finally decided, on one occasion, to retaliate by hitting him over the head with a wine decanter.


CTS pretends to measure, but does not actually measure, the severity of violence.

Violence Outside Relationships

Men are, across the board, more violent than women. Gender (male) is the single greatest predictor of criminal violence. In non-marital contexts, this is not at all controversial. One problem with the sexual symmetry hypothesis is that its proponents fail to provide any theory or explanation for why violence would be asymmetrical in nearly all contexts, but symmetrical in this one limited context. In fact, female violence this context is particularly in need of explanation, since it is particularly bizarre for an actor to choose a victim much larger than she, which husbands generally are. Which brings us to . . .

That Whole Sexual Dimorphism in Body Size Thing

Proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis generally concede that women are more likely to be injured by marital violence than men, yet still maintain that “women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men do.”[15] Focusing on the frequency of violence, rather than the severity and consequences, is silly and dishonest in the context of a physically mismatched pair such as a typical heterosexual couple. Imagine reading a study that found that children were as likely to hit their parents as vice versa, or elderly dependent adults were as likely to hit their caretakers as vice versa. We might say – interesting, but so what? Violence by the physically stronger party is simply more dangerous – more of a “social problem” – than violence by a weaker party. (This is aside from the issue that violence initiated by the stronger party against a weaker party is vastly more common than the reverse in other contexts, casting even more doubt on the veracity of the symmetry claim.)

However, violence against men is not nonexistent; in my experience as a domestic violence attorney, men with physical disabilities were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their female partners.

Evo Psych

The idea of sexual asymmetry in marital violence is not just a feminist idea; it is one grounded in evolutionary psychology. Men have much more to gain from violence against their wives than women do from violence against their husbands. Violence is an effective means of achieving men’s evolutionary aims (maintaining exclusive access to a woman’s reproductive capacity); women are unlikely to advance their evolutionary aims by physical violence against husbands. Women must use other means of getting what they want, which brings me to my . . .

Closing Words: Toward an Evolutionary Biology of the Attack Heifer

Over the past several years in my personal life, I have been baffled by a phenomenon affecting several of my male friends. Four of my male friends are or have been married to extremely mean, unpleasant, downright emotionally abusive women. The abuse was (or is) so severe that all of my friends developed a perceptible depression; one actually began to wet his pants at work (he’s still married, God save him). From an evolutionary perspective, I could understand my friends tolerating this abuse if the females in question were attractive (had high reproductive value); however, in each case, the female is significantly less attractive than the male. Two of the four women are clinically obese as well as ugly; the other two are merely ugly. Based on the baffling (to me) combination of emotional abusiveness and ugliness, I have termed this surprisingly common beast the attack heifer.

My male friends in question are characterized by innocence, lack of experience, and early age at marriage. They are also characterized by IQs within the top tenth of a percent of American adults (easily). Why did (or do) they stay?

My thinking is that this phenomenon – an objectively less “valuable” mate being crappy to a more “valuable” mate – is analogous to the fact that a man is more likely to kill a young wife than an older wife, and that age difference is a strong predictor of interspousal homicide.[16][17] A young wife has a higher reproductive value than an older wife; the husband of a young wife has “more to lose,” and is more likely to use violent tactics to prevent or punish his wife’s infidelity or attempts to leave the marriage.

Similarly, attack heifers perceive that they have a great deal to lose, and escalate their tactics to maintain control within the relationship – not through violent means, which wouldn’t be effective anyway, but using skills at which women surpass men: emotional manipulation.[18] Physical violence is not necessary to cause extreme suffering. Women do not need to be as violent as men to be as evil as men.

1. I dislike the fuzziness of the concept of “romantic relationships,” and marriage is too limiting for what we are discussing, which includes de facto marriages as well as legal unions. I tend to reduce this kind of relationship to its sexual component, which, to me, is what separates romantic relationships from friendships. The special value of sex compared to other, more nebulous concepts involved in romantic relationships, and the questionable value of monogamous relationships, are certainly something of legends for me, albeit examined ones.

2. Straus, Murray A. “Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CT) Scales.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51:75-88 (1979).

3. Archer, John. “Sex Differences in Aggression Between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review.Psychological Bulletin 126.4:651-680 (2000).

4. Kimmel, Michael. “‘Gender Symmetry’ in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review.” Violence Against Women 8.11:1332-1363 (2002).

5. Wilson, M. I., and Daly, M. “Who kills whom in spouse killings? On the exceptional sex ratio of spousal homicides in the United States. Criminology 30:189-215 (1992). No, it’s not because of guns, and it’s not because American women are more violent in general. Read the paper – it’s fascinating.

6. Dobash, R.P., Dobash, R.E., Wilson, M., Daly, M. “The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence.Social Problems 39:71-91 (1992).

7. Felson, Richard. “Big People Hit Little People: Sex Differences in Physical Power and Interpersonal Violence.” Criminology 34.3:433-452 (1996).

8. Henning, Kris, and Lynette Felder. “A Comparison of Men and Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Who Presents the Greater Threat?” J. Family Violence 19.2:69-80 (2004).

9. There are lots more, of course, but I can’t be arsed currently lack the resources to conduct a major literature review. But notice that even the proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis admit that most data sources do not reflect sexual symmetry in intimate partner violence.

10. Kinkaid, Pat. The Omitted Reality: Husband-Wife Violence in Ontario and Policy Implications for Education. Maple, Ontario: Learners Press, 1982. Cited in Dobash et al. (1992), supra.

11. Szinovacz, Maximiliane. “Using couple data as a methodological tool: The case of marital violence.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 45:633-644 (1983).

12. Jouriles, Ernest, and Daniel O’Leary. “Interspousal reliability of reports of marital violence.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53:419-421 (1985).

13. Straus, Murray. “The Conflict Tactics Scales and its critics: An evaluation and new data on validity and reliability.” In Physical Violence in American Families, ed. Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, 49-73. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers (1990).

14. Margolin, Gayla. “The multiple forms of aggressiveness between marital partners: How do we identify them?” J. Marital and Family Therapy 13:77-84 (1987).

15. Straus, Murray. “Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, eds. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publication (1993).

16. Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter (1988); see especially pp. 205-207.

17. Wilson, Margo, and Martin Daly. “Lethal and nonlethal violence against wives and the evolutionary psychology of male sexual proprietariness.” Pp. 199-230, in Violence Against Women: International and Cross-disciplinary Perspectives, Dobash & Dobash, eds. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications (1998).

18. “A man will rip off your arm and throw it into a river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside of your heart.” – Louis CK

Written by Sister Y

August 19, 2010 at 8:46 pm

The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle

with 24 comments

This post was very sweetly nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize. I think Karl Smith’s Pessimist Manifesto articulates the same philosophical points more generally and better.

Conspiracy theories are comforting. They posit an enemy – “bad guys” who are responsible for the mess we’re in – and they give us a group to imagine we’re struggling against, allowing us to be the “good guys.”

Patriarchy is, of course, real – in the Sudan, in Afghanistan, and for tens of thousands of years of human history. “Males dominate public/political realm” is on D.E. Brown’s list of human universals; it characterizes every human society that has ever been studied. Contrary to the wishes of wiccans and the like, there never have been any female-dominated societies.

In the modern West, however, almost all legal barriers to gender equality have been removed – as well as many practical ones (e.g., birth control, abortion, and the information economy). So why aren’t all our problem solved? Why do men still commit the vast majority of lethal violence? Why do men still “dominate the public/political realm”? Why aren’t there as many female math professors as male math professors? Why are female leading actors still mostly young and beautiful?

The comforting conspiracy theory is that all this is from socialization. Boys and girls are somehow influenced, from a young age, to take on the gender roles that they do. If we “good guys” could only change this socialization, then all the problems attributed to patriarchy would vanish.

But only an evolution denier could hold such a position (and, indeed, many feminists are evolutionary psychology deniers). A species with (historic and present) effective polygyny as high as ours is never going to achieve gender equality in anything but a legal sense.

And gynocracy, of course, is real, too – at least recently, in the West. While there are few situations in which the law prefers men over women, there are many situations in which the law protects (and sometimes “protects”) women at the expense of men’s interests. Here are a few:

  • By United States federal law, baby girls may not have their genitals mutilated, but baby boys may.
  • The near-universal prohibition on prostitution primarily affects men’s interests, because men are nearly the sole consumers of sexual services of both male and female prostitutes (fantasies like the television show Hung notwithstanding). A male who is unwilling or unable to enter a mutual sexual output contract has few legal options for obtaining sexual services – certainly a very important part of human happiness.
  • For a female, consent to sex does not equal consent to have and support a child. For a male, it does. A man may be forced to support a child he did not wish to have merely because he is the genetic parent.
  • On the other hand, for a female, being the genetic parent is enough to establish parental rights to the child. A male must often demonstrate more than genetic paternity – e.g., a relationship with the child or attempt to support the child – in order to have parental rights recognized at law.

The above examples of what might be termed “gynocracy” are wrong, and should be rectified. But will all the problems between men and women disappear if only we get the right legal system in place? If it didn’t work for women, why would we expect it to work for men? Or for any other oppressed group?

Evil exists. But there is no “enemy” except ourselves. Evolution has created organisms that compete with each other – intrasexually as well as intersexually. Our organism has developed the concepts of “good” and “evil,” “fairness and “cheating,” that help us live in large groups and compete successfully. But all the “good” and “fairness” in the world does not guarantee human happiness. In fact, it is human suffering that is guaranteed.

Conceiving of problems as struggles between us and our enemies is problematic because it gives false hope – hope that one can “win” the struggle. If only the right people were in charge, we think, things would be alright.

But the hope is a false one. Problems such as those between men and women are deep, systemic, and insoluble. They are part of our nature and will always exist. If we perpetuate our species, we perpetuate the problems. There will never be a time when “it was all worth it” – when we can look back on our previous struggles and pat ourselves on the back.

As we perpetuate our species, we do so on the backs of the suffering. And always shall.

On the curious proposition that women are as violent as men in relationships, see also my Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence.

Written by Sister Y

July 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

How People Die By Suicide

with 11 comments

A review of Why People Die By Suicide, by Thomas E. Joiner. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Thomas Joiner provides a robust descriptive model of suicide, but repeatedly refuses to consider the deeper “why” – the answer to which might be evolutionary adaptation in the Pleistocene.

In bathrooms at Disneyland, signs over the sinks offer what are described as “hand washing tips.” The alleged “tips” are:

  • Wet hands and apply soap.
  • Scrub hands and rinse.
  • Dry hands thoroughly using paper towels.

People find this sign amusing from an epistemological standpoint: it’s not so much a set of hand washing tips as it is a (humorously unnecessary) phenomenological description of the act of hand washing. It is funny because it purports to have normative content, but fails to contain anything but description.

Similarly, Thomas Joiner’s Why People Die By Suicide promises, in its title and its project, to provide an explanatory model for suicide. Joiner does provide a useful descriptive model of suicide, but he fails to live up to his title’s promise of an explanation of suicide. In fact, he explicitly rejects, on what are essentially aesthetic grounds, the most promising candidate for a genuine explanatory model of suicide – that is, evolutionary psychology.

Joiner’s Model

According to Joiner, three factors cause suicide: competence, or the ability to carry out a suicide; the feeling of being a burden; and social failure to belong. The first factor, competence, includes the physical ability, knowledge, and pain tolerance required to carry out a suicide, as well having lost or overcome the fear of death. The second and third factors, burdensomeness and failed belonging, join together to create the desire for death. Both the desire for death and the capability to achieve death must coexist in order for a person to commit suicide; that much is obvious. Joiner’s main contributions are setting this up in a clear formulation, and positing the two specific factors that constitute the desire for death.

Importantly, while maintaining that mental illness is relevant to suicide, Joiner does not implicate mental illness in causing suicide – rather, his model explains the elevated suicide levels in people with disorders like Bipolar I and II and Borderline Personality Disorder by the fact that such disorders (a) facilitate comfort with increasingly lethal self-harm, (b) increase feelings of (and perhaps actual) burdensomeness, and (c) decrease the ability to belong.

Joiner’s model is clear, helpful, and well-supported by studies. The problem with Joiner’s model is that, while it describes who commits suicide and how they manage to do it, it fails to explain why those people commit suicide. Why should people care about being a burden to others? Why should people care about social belonging? Why should they care about these things, but not other things, enough that death is preferable to the pain of burdensomeness and thwarted belonging?

Joiner is comfortable providing an answer as to why it should be difficult to commit suicide, and why the first element of his model, competence, should be necessary: natural selection. He implicates specific genes and brain traits in suicidality (even distinct from the genetic contribution to mental illness). Yet he explicitly refuses to consider the possible role of natural selection in regard to the other elements of his model, or to suicide as a phenomenon.

Why should people care about whether they are burdens on other people? Why isn’t it, say, the feeling of being overburdened by others that causes suicide? And why should failure to belong be so painful as to facilitate suicide? Why not anger, or guilt, or physical pain, or even excessive social contact? Joiner makes no attempt to explain. But an adaptive model readily explains the features of Joiner’s model, in addition to clarifying Joiner’s more questionable results; indeed, the adaptive model has more explanatory power than Joiner’s model.

Failure to Consider Suicide as an Adaptive Behavior

Suicide, like filicide, seems upon first consideration to be a ludicrous act, viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology: how can one’s genes go on if one kills oneself or one’s child? However, the act of filicide (the killing of one’s child or children) is clearly adaptive in many cases. Not only that, but it can be shown through statistical evidence that actors seem to differentiate between adaptive and non-adaptive filicides when they “decide” to commit filicide (as well as other apparently fitness-threatening homicides, like uxoricide and siblicide). What about suicide?

An act is adaptive when it increases the inclusive fitness of an actor – that is, when the act’s benefits – in terms of survival, procreation, or nepotistic distribution of resources to one’s genetic relatives – exceed the act’s costs, in the same terms.[1]

Under certain conditions, one’s expected contribution to one’s own genetic fitness (likelihood of reproduction, likelihood of the survival of one’s future offspring to reproduce, effectiveness at materially supporting one’s offspring and other relatives) may fall to virtually nothing. However, as long as one survives under these circumstances, he not only contributes nothing to his own genetic fitness, but also likely drains the resources of his genetic relatives. His continued survival is contrary to his genetic interests. Therefore, suicide, in this limited situation, must be said to be adaptive. (For my earlier thinking on this topic, see my essay, The Evolutionary Biology of Suicide: Is Suicide Adaptive?)

It would be callous and cruel to think of a sick relative as a burden who would be better off dead. And that is not the message of an inclusive fitness model – its message is merely that, in the Pleistocene era when modern humans were evolving, a heritable trait that functioned to tell a human something like “die if you’re a net burden on your genetic kin, otherwise stay alive” may have carried benefits in terms of selection. However, Joiner cannot get past the (admittedly substantial) emotional load of the adaptive model of suicide, and rejects it on what are essentially aesthetic grounds:

. . . I do not much like this adaptive suicide view; my own dad died by suicide and the idea that he was an actual burden is offensive. My view is that self-sacrifice is adaptive in some animal species. It may have been adaptive under certain conditions in the course of human evolution, but we will never really know. Most important, it does not really matter now. What matters now is that perceived burdensomeness – and, to the extent that it exists, actual burdensomeness – are remediable through perception- and skill-based psychotherapies. Death is no longer adaptive, if it ever was. [Joiner, p. 115]

This is a strange statement for a scientist. Although Joiner is writing a book called Why People Die By Suicide, he asserts that the essential “why” of his research does not matter – especially to the extent that it might be “offensive.” In this, I think he misunderstands the nature of the adaptive view. It is not to say that suicide is good or bad, or that Joiner’s dad really was a burden to Joiner or his family – simply that, in the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the ability and predilection to commit suicide under certain conditions may have conferred a benefit. Joiner also wrongly asserts that “we will never really know” about the adaptive theory, when he should know that the evolutionary psychology model is perfectly capable of generating testable hypotheses, and has done so in the past with robust results.

Joiner pushes the notion that it is perceived burdensomeness – not actual burdensomeness – that facilitates suicide. However, this may be more nice than true: suicidal persons’ perceptions of their own burdensomeness may in fact be highly accurate. Just before he dismisses the adaptive theory of suicide, Joiner summarizes a study supporting the view that suicides really are a burden: “when researchers interviewed the significant others of eighty-one people who had recently attempted suicide, a majority of significant others reported that their support of the patient represented a burden to them.”

The adaptive model leads to different predictions (and, in turn, possibly different risk assessments and treatment models) from Joiner’s model. For instance, in Joiner’s model, “belongingness” is all that matters. But an adaptive model would predict that some forms of belongingness would be more protective against suicide than others – specifically, contributing to the welfare of one’s genetic relatives (or, perhaps, surrogates for genetic relatives) would be more protective than other forms of belonging. Relationships with spouses and children would matter more than relationships with friends in an adaptive model, but not in Joiner’s model. Joiner does not even consider this to be a question worth researching. Similarly, in Joiner’s model, all that matters is “burdensomeness” – no matter who is burdened. An adaptive model might predict that burdensomeness on genetic relatives in particular (or their surrogates) would trigger suicidal behavior, rather than burdensomeness on non-relatives. Again, Joiner is not interested in testing this hypothesis, although it might have major implications for treatment and risk assessment. It cannot be said, with regard to the adaptive view of suicide, that “it does not matter now.”[2]

Joiner’s model, including a refusal to consider the adaptive view, seems to strain when it encounters certain data. For instance, when explaining the data that pregnant women experience a lower suicide rate than non-pregnant women – one-third the non-pregnant rate in one study – Joiner says: “I would suggest that the protective influence involved feelings of connection to the baby, as well as feeling needed by the baby and thus not a burden.” But a relationship to an unborn, unseen person who cannot respond is a strange sort of “relationship.” An adaptive explanation – pregnancy confers clear survival value compared to non-pregnancy – is less strained than a belongingness/burdensomeness model, and, in fact, provides a deeper explanation of why a pregnant woman might develop deep feelings for a non-speaking person inhabiting her body.[3]

Joiner’s model accounts for sex differences between the suicide rates of men and women in two ways: first, in terms of competence, men are more likely to be exposed to provocative stimulation (all kinds of violence and more) that break down one’s fear of death over time; second, in terms of desire for death, men are more likely to be disconnected and more likely to feel they are burdens than women. This is probably true – the first part, in particular, accords well with what I believe to be the most accurate explanation for the differences between the suicide rates of men and women – but, again, why should this be? Why should men be more prone to risky, painful, violent, or as Joiner terms it, “provocative” behavior?

The answer, again, lies in evolutionary biology. Men are not merely “socialized” to be more violent – there are good evolutionary reasons for their greater violence and risk-taking in all areas. A great deal of this is due to what Daly & Wilson term the “effective polygyny” of human beings (at least in the EEA) – that is, that the fertility variance among men is much higher than among women, with many more men than women having a high number of children, and, similarly, many more men than women having zero children. This leads to the sad phenomenon of male disposability – while a woman is “valuable,” with a certain, nearly guaranteed level of reproductive success, a man may have no reproductive success at all – but may, by engaging in risky behavior (e.g., successful killing in wars or honor battles), increase his reproductive success to well beyond what a woman might have. A human male is, sadly, invited by his genetic heritage to gamble his life on the chance of a big payoff in reproductive success.[4] What is driving differential violence in general may also drive differential suicides – even independently from the greater access to fear-reducing, provocative experiences.

More specifically, Joiner’s model does not explain why, in addition to varying between genders and across age groups, the time pattern in suicides across age groups is different between men and women. Men’s suicide rates are a linear function of age: the older the male, the higher the suicide rate. Women’s suicide rates vary with time differently, however. While in some countries, the pattern for women matches that for men, in other countries the pattern is very different. In Canada, rather than rising linearly with age, suicide among women peaks during the 35-44 age range; in the United States, the Netherlands, and Sweden, it peaks during the 45-54 age range; and in Australia, Denmark, and Poland, female suicides peak in the 55-64 age range.[5] While belonging and burdensomeness are probably implicated, the fact that these are the age ranges of menopause and post-menopause in women seems to lend support to the adaptive view as to why burdensomeness and thwarted belonging would come into play at those times.

While Joiner’s model is compelling, I think there is persuasive evidence that an adaptive model explains suicide better than Joiner’s model.[6] At the very least, such a hypothesis deserves to be considered, and should not be rejected on merely aesthetic grounds. To do so is irresponsible and unscientific. An accurate analysis of the etiology of suicide affects both assessment of the risk of suicide and treatment for the suffering that causes suicide.

Failure to Consider Unsuccessful Attempted Suicide as an Adaptive Behavior

Joiner refuses to consider whether a successful, completed suicide may be adaptive. Elsewhere, he refuses to consider data suggesting that making an apparently lethal but ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempt may be not only adaptive, but economically beneficial – provided one does not die in the attempt. In a 2003 article in the Southern Economic Journal, Dave Marcotte presented data that suicide attempters experience an increase in income after the attempt that is proportional to the lethality of the attempt. Charles Duhigg summarizes in his Slate article, provocatively subtitled “Why trying to kill yourself may be a smart business decision“:

Marcotte’s study found that after people attempt suicide and fail, their incomes increase by an average of 20.6 percent compared to peers who seriously contemplate suicide but never make an attempt. In fact, the more serious the attempt, the larger the boost — “hard-suicide” attempts, in which luck is the only reason the attempts fail, are associated with a 36.3 percent increase in income. (The presence of nonattempters as a control group suggests the suicide effort is the root cause of the boost.)

Marcotte’s data suggests that a suicide attempt, particularly an apparently lethal one, acts as a signal that the individual needs help – and, as it is a signal that entails significant cost (the risk of death), it is a particularly believable signal. This signal seems to act to make resources “cheaper” – a suicide attempter may get access to resources that he did not have access to before the attempt.

Again, Joiner is having none of it, and again, it’s for aesthetic, not scientific, reasons. Joiner’s complaints are two: the economic “viewpoint” is dangerous, in that it may encourage lethal-seeming suicide attempts; and it is callous, in that it denies the reality of the suffering experienced by the suicidal individual. Both of these “complaints” are without merit and are, I think, evidence of shoddy thinking on Joiner’s part.

As to the “danger” of the economic model, Joiner says

The danger of viewpoints like this should be pointed out. Any analysis that encourages suicidal behavior in any way – particularly in ways that romanticize or glorify it, or make it seem easy and normative – has potential negative consequences for public health.

But it is hardly the viewpoint that is dangerous – it’s the existing incentive structure in our society that encourages apparently lethal suicide attempts in people who often don’t really want to die. I have argued that if the suicide prohibition were ended, this dangerous incentive structure – the “fantasy of rescue” – would also end. (I have also proposed an outline of a model for ending the prohibition on suicide, with particular attention to ending the dangerous fantasy of rescue.) Analyses are not dangerous. Problems are dangerous; analyses identify the problems and point the way to solutions. By suggesting that the economic analysis is dangerous, Joiner is contributing to the taboo against speaking about suicide.[7]

Joiner’s idea that the economic hypothesis denies the reality of the suffering of suicide attempters is even more ridiculous. He believes that the economic idea is part of some kind of “deconstructionist” philosophy – he actually mentions Jacques Derrida by name (not kidding): “What is left for the deconstructionist, then, is a constant questioning of the very existence of reality and meaning – including the reality of emotional pain. Try telling that to a suicidal person.”

This objection makes so little sense that I had to reread the section (pp. 43-44) a couple of times before I understood it.[8] Joiner thinks that the economic model does not account for the pain suffered by those who attempt suicide. But the economic model suggests no such thing! Despite Duhigg’s unfortunate opening example in his popular reporting of the Marcotte study, the hypothesis is not that people coldly calculate that they will get a benefit from an apparently lethal suicide attempt. Rather, suffering people are motivated by that awful, extremely real suffering to do something awful – to, essentially, gamble their lives on a chance at making the suffering stop.

Culture, Language, and Occam’s Razor

One of the anomalies that Joiner believes he can explain with his theory is the fact that, while, in general, men commit suicide at a much greater rate than women, women in China commit suicide at a greater rate than men. Joiner is quick to find a cultural culprit: Confucianism. Specifically, he says that “the role of Confucianism in Chinese society and its view of the inferior position of women has been emphasized as one explanation, one that is consistent with the current emphasis on effectiveness as a buffer against suicide. (p. 157)” Social scientists, particularly white, Southern social scientists[9], are often quick to reach for a complicated but distancing cultural explanation when there is a perfectly good, but uncomfortable, solution available that might actually survive Occam’s Razor.

In the case of female suicides in China – and higher comparative rates of female suicide throughout Asia, including India (a noted hotbed of Confucianism) – the uncomfortable but obvious explanation is that lethal poisons are available in Asia, but not in the United States. Most females who commit suicide in China do so by poison, and the pattern holds true in other areas where female suicides exceed those of males, such as Bangalore, India. In the United States, many people, including females, attempt suicide by poisoning, but few succeed – lethal poisons are just not available in the United States, and in the event of a potentially lethal poisoning, medical care is not only available, but compulsory. The medical care necessary to treat a poisoning is often not available in China, especially in rural areas.

According to Joiner’s own model, females, who are exposed to less violent, provocative stimulation than men, should have less capability to commit suicide – by violent means. However, death by overdose or poisoning is not violent and is within the capabilities of many women. One need not reach for what even Joiner admits is speculation – that Chinese women, since they perform well in sport competitions (is he thinking of the Olympics?), are, as a group, encouraged to engage in athletics, leading to the development of more masculine traits, such as violence. Joiner’s explanation is, indeed, speculation, and ignores an obvious explanation that is consistent with his model. Perhaps the poison explanation is not as satisfying to Joiner as speculation about the effects of athleticism, because it fails to portray Asian people as sufficiently different from whites.[10]

Joiner indulges in even less responsible speculation when he considers language. Joiner devotes considerable time to the hypothesis that suicidal people fuse themes of life and death – that death becomes a focus for belonging and effectiveness. In contrast to the rest of his book, in which peer-reviewed studies are frequently cited as evidence for his claims, his main evidence for the “fusing of life and death themes” hypothesis is Nirvana lyrics (though he does give us a few isolated quotations of suicidal people that, if you squint the right way, seem to back up his idea).[11] I think that Joiner likes the idea that suicidal people fuse themes of life and death because it makes us seem more psychotic, and less rational in our actions.

The Ethics of Suicide and the Reality of Suffering

Though Joiner clearly has an ethical opinion (suicide is bad), he devotes no time to the question of the ethics of suicide and of forced hospitalization and the suicide prohibition in general. This is not unexpected. It is considered polite and compassionate to do “what is best” for suicidal people, and it is considered to be a serious failure of compassion to suggest that some of us might just know what is best for ourselves. To question suicide prevention on ethical grounds would be extremely foreign to Joiner’s way of thinking.

In addition, Joiner is sure that every death by suicide is preventable because treatment is available, but he fails to cite studies of treatments for suicidal misery that have a 100% long-term success rate. Instead, he proposes, in addition to the usual coercive suicide prevention techniques, public service announcements that say “keep your friends and make new ones too – it’s strong medicine.” He thinks that if more people called a friend every day, just to chat for a few minutes, there would be fewer suicides. He does not seem to apply this thinking to the suicide of his own father, however. His father, at the time of his death, was receiving what Joiner terms “reasonable treatments” (a mood stabilizer and an SSRI), but “his treatment came too late.” Joiner notes that his father sought out friends toward the end of his life, as Joiner’s patronizing public service announcement would have advised him, but “his efforts were not sufficient . . . . These things were beyond him . . . . (p. 226)”

Based on his (undefended) position that suicide is wrong, Joiner repeatedly describes websites like ASBS (an incarnation of the usenet group as “pernicious” (God knows what he would think of my project). He wrongly and tellingly characterizes ASBS as pro-suicide – ASBS is pro-choice, as am I. He approvingly cites restrictive guidelines for news outlets regarding reporting on suicides. Joiner says he is against lying about suicide, and is in favor of removing its stigma, but he doesn’t want conversations about suicide to occur if he doesn’t approve of their content.

Joiner promises an explanatory model – he calls his book “a comprehensive theory of suicidal behavior (p. 222)” – and makes assertions based on tacit moral assumptions. I think that Joiner owes us not only an explanation of why people die by suicide, but also of why dying by suicide is wrong – and why coercive means of suicide prevention are ethically appropriate.


1. Of course, traits are heritable, not acts, but the ability and predilection to commit certain acts, and the ability to distinguish when to do so and when not to do so, may be seen as traits to the extent that they are specifically heritable. More precisely, we must say that a trait is beneficial when it increases one’s inclusive fitness. A trait may be very specific.

2. There is one sense in which it really doesn’t matter, of course, and that is the ethical sense. In fact, this is the sense in which even I have previously stated that an adaptive model makes no difference. But this is not the sense in which Joiner means it. He means that it can have no assessment or treatment consequences and that it is not an appropriate topic for scientific inquiry. As I stated above, the adaptive model has clear assessment and treatment implications. Whether the adaptive model is supported or refuted, it does matter.

3. Another set of data must be explained – a group of “initially pessimistic” teenage mothers reported low depression while pregnant, but high depression postpartum. Joiner attributes this to “the belief that connection to the baby and the baby’s father would solve ongoing problems” during the pregnancy, and to the fact that “the idea that motherhood would solve ongoing problems was not confirmed” after birth. However, the adaptive model gives a cleaner explanation: it makes evolutionary sense for the chemical changes during pregnancy to promote positivity and effectiveness, but also for the fitness prospects of the new baby to be evaluated coldly once the baby is born. This is particularly true for a young mother with no mate. This view is supported by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s work on infanticide.

4. See, e.g., Chapter 6, “Altercations and Honor,” in Homicide by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1988.

5. Suicide Across the Life Span by Judith Stillion and Eugene McDowell. Taylor & Francis, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 18.

6. I have not even mentioned the work of Denys DeCatanzaro, whose studies demonstrated a correlation between factors indicating low reproductive value and suicidal ideation. See, e.g., DeCatanzaro, D. (1991). Evolutionary limits to self-preservation. Ethology & Sociobiology, 12, 13-28; and DeCatanzaro, D. (1995). Reproductive status, family interactions, and suicidal ideation: Surveys of the general public and high-risk groups. Ethology & Sociobiology, 16, 385-394.

7. The unquestioning acceptance of the idea of suicide contagion, and of the harm to free speech and freedom of the press done in its name, are also ways in which the taboo against speaking about suicide is maintained.

8. I suspect that Joiner has limited familiarity with economic models and economic thinking, which may be why he seems even more threatened by this idea than by the idea that suicide is adaptive.

9. I don’t think this characterization and its implications are unwarranted. Joiner reports two incidents of people doing crazy things that might inure them to the pain of suicide. In one, a man Joiner specifically identifies by name, Huyn Ngoc Son, “swallowed three metal construction rods, each around seven inches long,” on a bet from drinking buddies, and had to have them surgically removed. In the other story, a man in England, whose name Joiner does not mention, drank fifteen pints of beer, had an argument, and went home to get a shotgun – which, while he was carrying it back to the bar in his pants, discharged shotgun pellets into his “groin area,” potentially rendering him infertile. Research reveals that the man’s name in the second incident was David Walker – the non-Vietnamese name was apparently not funny and foreign-sounding enough for Joiner to include in his description of the event.

10. I know that’s not warranted, but I have as much evidence for that claim as Joiner does for his claim that Chinese women are “sportier.” Also, I am an Internet crackpot, and Thomas Joiner is a goddamn principal investigator.

11. Elsewhere, Joiner reports that he did a “social word” analysis of a suicidal and a non-suicidal Faulkner character – yes, characters from literature – and found that, indeed, the suicidal character used fewer social words. “Faulkner accurately portrayed relatively poorly understood, intense, and rare psychological processes – still more indication of his literary genius.” This is a fun stunt, but the fact that Joiner thinks it belongs in a section called “Research on Social Isolation, Disconnection, and Suicidal Behavior” calls his judgment and intellectual honesty into question.

Thanks to Chip Smith for comments on this piece.

An Interview With Me

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Chip Smith of The Hoover Hog recently conducted an interview with me. The resulting document is an excellent synthesis of, and introduction to, my strange ideas.

Why We Should Keep Knitting Booties

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See also, Incentives Will Fail: Why Procreation Is Like Prostitution And Drugs.

Many of us believe that everyone has a moral right not to be born, a strange sort of right that one only holds in its breach, as David Benatar puts it. But what consequences should this moral view have on our actions?

Obviously, someone who believes an action is wrong should avoid taking that action himself. But what is one to do about others who take actions that one believes to be wrong?

David Benatar addresses the political side of this question in Better Never to Have Been. Benatar concludes, and I agree, that although procreation is always a harm, a political prohibition on birth would be a greater moral horror. A political prohibition on birth would mean, with our current technology, forced abortion and forced sterilization. No matter how great the harm of birth – even though it entails death – forced abortion is worse, especially considering the widespread fear and suffering that the policy would cause to currently-living people.

So the political answer is, I think, do nothing, except perhaps to increase funding for voluntary birth control, abortion, and education. But what of the personal realm? Should we still knit booties when our friends have babies? Or should we flip off people with “Baby On Board” stickers in their windows?

Cory Doctorow is one of my heroes. His work, more than anyone’s except perhaps Michael Gondry’s, often leaves me with at least a temporary sense that there are worthwhile, interesting projects for sentient beings other than pursuing nonexistence.

As I have previously mentioned, I find Doctorow’s story I, Rowboat, the story of Robbie the sentient rowboat, extremely affecting. Doctorow displays a deep grasp of the ethical problems involved in creating new sentient beings. (In a subplot, a coral reef is brought to sentience by a chaotic-evil being, described as a “capricious upload god,” wakes up very angry, and apparently spends the rest of eternity chasing the “upload god” in an attempt to destroy it. The main plot centers on Robbie the rowboat’s poignant, lonely experience of sentience.)

Given Doctorow’s apparently nuanced understanding of the problems of coming into existence, some experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when Cory had a baby. Some reacted with uncharitable crankiness, such as BoingBoing commenter Kyle Armbruster (re-emvowelled by me):

It’s like, just when you thought Cory Doctorow couldn’t possibly be more of a self-aggrandizing, pedantic know-it-all prick, he has a kid.

If there’s any justice in the universe, his daughter will legally change her name to get rid of the 40 extra ones her parents tacked on and become the CFO of Sony BMG.

(Kyle got “put on time out” from BoingBoing for three days for that, and that kind of vitriol probably indicates the usually-well-behaved user needs a bit of a break.)

I believe it is a serious moral harm to have children, but I think it is a great harm to be a total self-righteous cunt toward people who decide to have children. The morally correct action, in my view, is to openly espouse antinatalism, but at the same time to welcome babies into the world and knit them booties. Benatar himself leads the way with this, by dedicating his book to his parents and his brothers. We have all been harmed by being brought into existence, but once we exist, let us enjoy each other’s company.

Just as there should be no forced abortion or forced sterilization in the political realm, even though more babies will thereby be created, there should be no additional suffering heaped onto parents and children because of this wrong. We should continue to develop and spread our ideas with the hope that people will make ethical choices, but, as I have said, we should keep knitting booties.

Even a generation ago, children who had the misfortune to be born “out of wedlock” were treated horribly by the adults in their communities. My own grandmother suffered greatly from this, born into a highly religious community when my great-grandmother was not married. The horrible treatment was related, at least in part, to the moral belief that procreation is only appropriate between married people. But however strongly held, however correct even, this belief may be, it is not a license to treat babies and children badly. The mistreatment of babies and children is a moral horror. Likewise, it’s pointless, mean, and immoral to flip off the people with the “Baby On Board” stickers.

Taking a page from abortion centrists, let our movement’s slogan be this: Make procreation safe, legal, and rare. And keep knitting booties.


On a related note, I want to trace the implications of a thought I briefly entertained in dealing with my own cognitive dissonance upon the birth of Cory Doctorow’s child: when a man fathers a child through natural means, how can we be sure that procreation was the man’s decision? (Again, I do not at all mean to imply that Cory’s daughter was unplanned or unwanted! By all reports, she was most wanted, and is a charming baby destined to be brilliant, creative, and highly capable.)

In most first-world countries, contraception is widely available. Effective contraception may be utilized by either partner, even without the cooperation of the other. However, in practice, men often rely on women for contraception. Also, contraception failures are frequent.

Again, in most first-world countries, abortion is the prerogative of women. A woman who becomes pregnant may choose to give birth, or to abort. But a man’s freedom not to procreate ends with ejaculation. A woman can procreate with or without a man’s consent to the procreation. A man can only procreate with a woman’s continuing consent.

Given the alternatives – forced abortion, forced birth – this is the best system. A forced abortion is worse than a man being obliged to procreate against his will. A forced birth is worse than a man being prevented from procreating against his will.

While abortion as a female prerogative is better than the alternatives, it is not without problems. The general requirement, again in first-world countries, that parents monetarily support their children until they reach majority creates a major (and undeserved) hardship for men who conceived accidentally and do not desire to have a child. And this is not to mention the emotional consequences. Is an act of sexual intercourse enough to morally justify saddling someone with an unwanted child? If not for women, then why for men?

I think people ignore the injustice inherent in our system of allocating procreative responsibility, because its obvious flaws are not amenable to a political solution. It is another limit on human happiness.

One of the implications of the de facto female monopoly on reproductive decisions, in first-world countries, is to render antinatalism primarily a female issue.

However, an example of undeniable, active male participation in reproduction (other than through artificial means) is related by Mary Beth Bonacci, professional chastity lecturer and realtor. Her 2001 article in the Arlington Catholic Herald told the story of a married Catholic couple who considered, but ultimately rejected, divorce:

But there’s more. Back in the fast-track days, Greg had a vasectomy. After their conversion, they felt called to reverse that procedure — a very expensive proposition. But, through yet another miracle, they found a doctor inspired by their story, who was willing to do the reversal — essentially for free. He did so, and on Feb. 9, 2001, Katharine Marie Alexander was welcomed into the world.

God is truly good.

Most men are not as lucky as Greg was in controlling their procreation. It is a moral issue that deserves consideration.

Written by Sister Y

August 8, 2008 at 9:35 pm